Those of us on the frontlines of fighting disinformation are used to Fox News host Tucker Carlson spreading conspiracy theories. But as the host of the most watched primetime show in America turns his attention to the Jan. 6 committee, it’s no longer enough to change the channel and ignore Carlson. Instead, we must understand how Carlson’s business model is fueled through his attacks on high-stakes events — in this case, a congressional investigation into the attempted overthrow of our government — and take steps to curb his efforts to influence the process.
Carlson is influential on TV, but cable pales in comparison to his influence online. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” reaches an average of 3.5 million viewers across the country every night. But online, clips from his show spread like wildfire on social media, where they reach hundreds of millions of views. Media Matters found that “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was the top video post about the Jan. 6 committee hearing on Facebook across an analysis of 3,200 Facebook posts from US news and politics pages between June 9 and 10. In March, clips from his show were viewed over 57 million times, providing over half of views for the network’s top 50 most-popular videos.
Fox News, which is so data-driven that it measures viewer engagement on a minute-by-minute basis — has appeared to reward him with the full rein to develop more content for his growing online audience. In 2021, the daytime show “Tucker Carlson Today” launched on Fox Nation, Fox’s paid streaming service. Carlson aired a show called “Election Fraud 2020″ with guest Michael Gableman, who is now in court for deleting records in Wisconsin’s taxpayer-funded investigation into the 2020 election.
With the Jan. 6 hearings as a backdrop, Carlson has doubled down with the launch of ”Patriot Purge,” a three-part “documentary” film that claims the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false flag operation built to strip Donald Trump voters of their constitutional rights. The film, which is currently streaming on Fox Nation, also claims that the FBI and antifa were behind the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Both claims are false.
The content is both strategically aligned with Fox News’ heads — Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan have been accused of personally allowing Fox News to promote election disinformation — and is also highly monetizable.
There is a way to stop this.
Fox News Digital’s growth is fueled by digital ads. These ads are placed through ad exchanges, which connect Fox News Digital to advertisers who collectively spend over $400 billion a year across the web. These ads — which include display and video ads you see before you watch a news clip — are placed automatically by tech companies known as ad exchanges. In a mostly automated industry, these companies are the middlemen that distribute billions of dollars worth of digital ads across the web with little to no human oversight. Advertisers are generally unaware of where on the internet their ads are running — and often don’t realize they’re embedded in objectionable content until someone calls them out on social media. This setup earns Fox News Digital millions of dollars to fuel its digital operations. However, it’s not just inappropriate, it’s against the rules.
I co-founded an institution called Check My Ads, an independent ad tech watchdog. We uncover the ties between ad exchanges and disinformation, and cut off this critical source of revenue by pressuring these companies to enforce their own policies. These policies (known as “supply” or “publisher” policies) exist to protect advertisers, who overwhelmingly don’t want their ads to run alongside harmful content — including hate speech and racism. In response to increasingly extreme events, ad exchanges have introduced increasingly robust policies that prohibit publishers who promote misleading narratives, election disinformation and violence from monetizing. One exchange explicitly prohibits content that “promotes the overthrow of the government.”
The ad industry isn’t keen to proactively enforce their own policies, so we are here to make them do it. In January, we used the policies of over half a dozen ad exchanges to force them to drop the biggest voices in disinformation, including Steve Bannon, Charlie Kirk, and Dan Bongino. In doing so, we have set a precedent for the ad industry: It’s not appropriate to fund people who were behind the coup.
Tucker Carlson and Fox News Digital should be next. Carlson is misleading the public and so is Fox News. And the ad industry has already been clear they agree. But the ad industry appears to have carved out an exception for Fox News, which is deeply embedded in both the advertising and media industries.
However, these relationships can be broken by an educated and informed public. We launched a campaign to demonetize Fox News Digital three weeks ago, and already over 40,000 people signed up to send emails demanding the ad exchange executives cut them off from ads.
Millions of Americans are tuning into the Jan. 6 hearings. A recent Ipsos poll shows that a majority of Americans believe the Jan. 6 committee is doing a fair and impartial job with its investigation. An Economist/YouGov poll found that 79 percent of Americans asked now believe Trump was involved in a large-scale attempt to overturn the 2020 election results and they want to see the perpetrators held accountable. As the committee’s investigation unearths more details about who and what was behind the coup, it brings Carlson’s efforts to undermine our democratic process into starker relief.
For the ad industry to continue its relationship with Fox News Digital is not only a violation of its supply policies, it’s a violation of trust with consumers. Americans are angry and rattled about what happened that day. And if we’re going to see justice, we should apply pressure on the middlemen to restrict the ads that prop up Tucker and his lies now — before it’s too late.
Americans deserve the truth. And the first step is for the ad industry to cut off Tucker Carlson.
Nandini Jammi is co-founder of Check My Ads.