Nandini’s campaigns have been instrumental in defunding American hate website Breitbart News. In a conversation with TNM, she talks about the lessons to be learned in India from this experience.

Nandini Jammi co-founder of Sleeping Giants and co-founder of Check My Ads wearing a red jacket and speaking at an eventTwitter/Nandini Jammi
news Interview Tuesday, August 11, 2020 - 13:47

Four years ago, Nandini Jammi was a tech marketer who visited American far-right website Breitbart News, that has consistently published racist, xenophobic, white supremacist content, and fake news. She saw several ads on the site, and decided on a whim to screenshot an ad on the site and send it to the brand being featured there. “I realised that these brands were funding Breitbart News,” Nandini says, in a chat with TNM. “And in the process, I teamed up with another person who was also working on it. That’s how Sleeping Giants started.”

Sleeping Giants is self described on Twitter as a “campaign to make bigotry and sexism less profitable.” Started in 2016 by Nandini and Matt Rivitz, the campaign has been working on convincing brands to remove their ads from websites that deal primarily in spreading hate – and they’ve managed to do so with hundreds of brands, including BMW, Lenovo, HP, Visa and Vimeo. The reason ads of big brands end up on sites that may not even align with their values is because of the way advertising technology works – algorithms that “place” ads in different websites. And Sleeping Giants wanted to let brands know that they had a choice to not fund these hate websites with their advertising budgets.

So how does one go about contacting brands whose ads are appearing on hate sites? “I usually take things up privately with the brands,” Nandini explains. “I write them an email documenting what is being said on the sites where their ads are appearing, and being specific about the harms they are causing. I ask them – given what is said, what are your plans? If they don’t respond, then I would take it public. And at every step, I document their responses – both in private and in public.”

As Sleeping Giants found success in the US, the movement was replicated in several other countries including Brazil, where people have managed to build momentum quickly, Nandini says.

However, Nandini herself has quit Sleeping Giants, accusing her white male co-founder for gaslighting her and not giving her credit for building the movement – after which Matt Rivitz apologised on Twitter. She started her own company – Check My Ads, along with Claire Atkin. “When I started this work, I did not know much about advertising technology (adtech),” Nandini says. “For the last year, I’ve been digging more deeply into how it works.”

With Check My Ads, Nandini and her partner want to help brands check exactly where their ad spend is going – and to reallocate the funds. “The ad industry benefits from an ecosystem where brands spend as much as possible – put out as many ads as possible. The ecosystem has conspired to form a narrative that it is safe to spend on ads through digital and programmatic advertising,” Nandini says.

And yet, ads for big brands continue to appear on hate mongering websites. “I personally feel woken up to the fact that hateful rhetoric is funded by companies that I shop with,” Nandini says, “And as a marketer, I also feel for my peers in marketing – who don’t want to be funding this stuff. Their funds are funelled towards bad actors and bad faith organisations. But it’s a problem we can solve.”

At a time when several movements across the world – and in India – are grappling with intersectional issues within these spaces, Nandini’s decision to call out her co-founder for sexism was refreshing. What does she have to stay on criticism that movements need to “stick together” and not bring out such issues publicly in order to “protect” the movement?

“I would say that any movement that claims to protect a group of people while also abusing those same people, who are working on that movement with you, is not a movement worth protecting,” Nandini says. “In my case, I came out because I was no longer serving my mission, by allowing myself to be pushed around, because that meant I was being pushed out. We have to protect ourselves and defend ourselves first, it is a part of our work and not an afterthought,” she says.

“After I saw the success of Sleeping Giants Brazil – and seeing them build their movement so quickly – it told me that the movement is bigger than one or two people. It was never about us,” she adds.

“It’s extremely empowering and validating to see that our community stood up for me, because that meant that our movement is legitimate. Our community really understands and stands by our mission, even if it means me having to leave. It didn’t hurt the movement,” Nandini says. 

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