Just after the 2016 election, an anonymously run Twitter account emerged with a plan to choke off advertising dollars to Breitbart News, the hard-edge, nationalist website closely tied to President Trump’s administration.
The account, named Sleeping Giants, urged people to collect screenshots of ads on Breitbart and then question brands about their support of the site. Sleeping Giants correctly guessed that many companies did not know where their digital ads were running, and advertisers were caught off guard as the account circulated images of blue-chip brands in proximity to headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”
As hundreds of brands blocked their ads from appearing on Breitbart, and the account expanded to put pressure on certain Fox News shows, the people behind Sleeping Giants maintained their anonymity — until this week.
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Matt Rivitz, a freelance copywriter in San Francisco who has worked with a range of advertisers, was identified as the account’s creator against his wishes on Monday by The Daily Caller, the conservative news and opinion website co-founded by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Mr. Rivitz, 45, confirmed the report on Twitter, where Sleeping Giants has more than 160,000 followers. He runs the account with Nandini Jammi, 29, a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant, along with other still anonymous contributors.
“The way it happened sucks, but I’m super proud of this thing and of all the people who worked on it and all the people who followed it,” Mr. Rivitz said in his first interview since his involvement in the account was revealed. “We’re happy that we made advertisers think a little bit and realize what they’re supporting.”
Mr. Rivitz did not expect to rock the ad and media worlds with Sleeping Giants, which he viewed as an apolitical crusade against hate speech. While he is a registered Democrat, he said he had never been politically active outside of attending “maybe two marches pre-election.” Most of his work for advertisers was focused on television commercials and did not involve social media. He wasn’t a particularly active Twitter user.
But Mr. Rivitz said he was struck by what he viewed as “incredibly bigoted and racist and sexist” content on Breitbart News, including in its comment sections, after his first visit to the site in November 2016. The site had gained prominence because of its ties to Stephen K. Bannon, its former chairman, who was Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.
“I was pretty amazed at the stuff they were printing, and my next thought, being in advertising, was, ‘Who is knowingly supporting this stuff?’” he said. “I thought maybe it would be two to three companies, and I quickly realized within a couple hours it was all placed programmatically.”
Mr. Rivitz was referring to the automated systems that place most online ads and tend to target consumers based on who they are, rather than which site they are visiting.
“It didn’t seem like the advertisers would want to be there,” he said. “I just set up this anonymous Twitter handle and set up an anonymous email and just went for it, because I wanted to contact one advertiser — a progressive loan company from San Francisco.” (The company, Social Finance, quickly pulled its ads.)
Brian Glicklich, a spokesman for Breitbart, said, “The specific allegations they make about our content being racist, sexist or bigoted are false.”
Sleeping Giants contributed to a broader industry reckoning around how the automated placement and scale of online ads could fund toxic content and extremism. It also highlighted the challenges that companies face in controlling where their ads end up.
Early on, it flagged an advertisement from Workable, a start-up that sells recruiting software, above the Breitbart headline “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.” A screenshot made its way to Nikos Moraitakis, Workable’s chief executive, who said he “nearly had a heart attack” when he saw it. The company, which appeared on the site through one of the Google companies that broker web ads, added Breitbart to its “opt out” list.
The account also gained attention when it highlighted the presence of Kellogg’s ads on Breitbart, which resulted in the breakfast cereal company’s blacklisting the site. In response, Breitbart attempted a #DumpKelloggs campaign.
Mr. Rivitz said the idea behind Sleeping Giants was to inform advertisers, rather than to force boycotts. Breitbart News saw the account’s mission differently.
“Sleeping Giants’ political playbook is to attack opposing speech through harassment and false claims to try to drive it out of business,” Mr. Glicklich said. “They and others have failed at this every time it has been attempted. Democracy flourishes from more conversation, not less, which is why Matt Rivitz’s speech suppression through economic force is among the most reviled techniques of coercion.”
Shortly after Mr. Rivitz started the account, it caught the attention of Ms. Jammi, an American who lives in Berlin. She also visited Breitbart after the election and was startled to see ads from major companies there, thanks to her browsing history. Mr. Rivitz contacted Ms. Jammi through Twitter after seeing a post she had written for Medium on how marketers could blacklist Breitbart, and the two joined forces.
Ms. Jammi, who said her previous interest in politics had amounted to nothing more than following the news, discussed anonymity “early and often” with Mr. Rivitz.
“Initially, we were kind of freaked out at the alt-right influence, and, obviously, one of our primary concerns was staying safe,” she said.
Knowledge of their involvement was limited to a tight circle of family and friends. Mr. Rivitz and Ms. Jammi, who have met in person once, said they each spent three to eight hours a day on Sleeping Giants — posting tweets and corresponding with companies and advertisers — while working at their day jobs. They were vague about how many other people help run the account and its Facebook page, citing privacy concerns and threats.
Since Sleeping Giants got its start, a great number of brands have taken steps to make sure that they do not appear on Breitbart. The site had about 649 advertisers on its website last month, showing around 1,902 different display ads, according to data from Moat Pro, a digital ad intelligence product. That was down from 3,300 advertisers and 11,500 display ads in November 2016. (Sleeping Giants’ count of departed advertisers is closer to 4,000.)
As Sleeping Giants expanded, it broadened its mission to making “bigotry and sexism less profitable” over all. In April 2017, it rallied its following to join the widespread pressure on companies that advertised on “The O’Reilly Factor” after The New York Times reported that Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News show’s host, had settled with at least five women who had accused him of harassment. This year, the account added to the pressure on brands whose commercials appeared on “The Ingraham Angle,” the Fox News show hosted by Laura Ingraham, after she ridiculed a student survivor of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
Critics have accused Sleeping Giants of engaging in a form of censorship, a criticism that Mr. Rivitz rejected.
“There are plenty of conservative- and liberal-leaning news organizations that are doing everything in good faith and are talking about policy without bringing divisiveness and racism into it, and that’s where the break is with some of these websites,” he said.
He added that he had received a barrage of threats and harassment in the wake of the Daily Caller article, which also named his wife and friends.
Ms. Jammi, who was not named by The Daily Caller, said she wasn’t sure what kind of harassment to expect, now that her role had been made public. She added that she hoped the attention would raise scrutiny of the big-tech platforms that kept advertisers in the dark.
“Breitbart is where we started, but ultimately the problem is not Breitbart or The Daily Caller — the problem is the tech companies,” Ms. Jammi said. “I fully support that right for them to write whatever they want. What I have a problem with is Facebook and Twitter monetizing it.”
Mr. Rivitz said the Sleeping Giants community had grown so robust that he felt like an administrator. Still, he said, its mission remains the same.
“People can use their free speech to say whatever they want and print whatever they want, and that’s what makes this country great,” Mr. Rivitz said, “but it doesn’t mean they need to get paid for it, especially by an advertiser who didn’t know they were paying for it.”