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April 23, 2024

‘Anti-trans narratives’ see Unherd put on advertising blacklist

Unherd's CEO says the Global Disinformation Index should lose government funding.

By Dominic Ponsford

Comment-based current affairs website Unherd has found itself boycotted by many online advertisers after publishing three articles seen as containing “anti-trans narratives”.

It has been placed on the Dynamic Exclusion List operated by UK-based non-profit company the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) which provides data for online advertisers about websites it considers to be unsafe for brands to appear on.

Unherd chief executive and editor-in-chief Freddie Sayers is concerned that the GDI previously received UK government funding. And he wants advertisers, who pay for GDI data, to stop using a service which he sees as a threat to freedom of expression.

GDI meanwhile sees its work as a counter-balance to the spread of toxic misinformation online which has been fuelled by programmatic advertising and algorithm-driven content discovery on social media and search.

Sayers said the low rating from GDI means his site can only achieve between 2% and 6% of what it could expect to earn through advertising if it had been given a brand-safe rating.

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Unherd says it has no political affiliation but its position challenging what it describes as “lazy consensus” and orthodoxies means much of its content is more likely to appeal to those with right-of-centre ‘anti-woke’ views. It was founded by Sir Paul Marshall who is also a major investor in GB News and one of several bidders vying to buy The Daily Telegraph.

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Unherd charges £4.99 to subscribers for full access and attracts more than three million visitors per month according to Similarweb. Sayers said if it had been relying on advertising for revenue the actions of GDI would have pushed it out of business. As it is, with the GDI rating in place he said it can only attract low-quality advertising from less scrupulous brands.

GDI uses a combination of machine learning and human raters to identify sites which quality advertisers would want to avoid.

Under its own rules GDI targets “highly adversarial” content about at-risk groups, science and democracy which it believes could cause harm. Such information must, it says, “have the intent to mislead”.

GDI’s ratings are sold to companies which push out advertising programmatically across thousands of websites to enable brands to exercise some control over where their marketing messages appear.

Why has Global Disinformation Index blacklisted Unherd?

Unherd’s Sayers said he approached three advertising agencies and they all reported that the site was only achieving a tiny proportion of what was expected via programmatic advertising.

Eventually, advertising agency Teads revealed that Unherd was being flagged as disinformation by advertising software company Oracle which uses data from GDI.

Teads shared a message from GDI about Unherd which said: “Here are a few examples of the anti-trans narratives listed below. The site authors have also been called out for being anti-trans. Kathleen Stock, the author of the second article is acknowledged as a ‘prominent gender-critical’ feminist. She has opposed transgender self-identification in regards to proposed reforms in the 2004 UK Gender Recognition Act.”

Last week Stock received a “high commendation” at the News Media Association‘s Press Awards in the category of tabloid columnist of the year for her writing for Unherd, losing out to the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday’s Sarah Vine.

The Unherd articles flagged by GDI were as follows:

Sayers has given evidence to the House of Lords about what he sees as the threat to free expression presented by GDI and wrote about the issue on Unherd.

A video in which Sayers said the GDI “censors political speech” has been viewed more than seven million times on X (formerly Twitter) after being shared by Elon Musk, who said the body should be “shut down, with recriminations for the miscreants”.

According to a written answer in the House of Commons, the Foreign Office Counter Disinformation and Media Development Programme has paid GDI £2.6m since 2019. Other funders for GDI include Open Society Foundations and the European Union.

Sayers believes GDI disproportionately gives low brand safety ratings to websites with a right-wing viewpoint and noted in his own report that GDI is more likely to give low ratings in the US to conservative-leaning websites.

He wrote: “At a time when the news media is so distrusted and faces a near-broken business model, the role of government should be to prevent, not encourage, and most certainly not fund, consolidations of monopoly power around certain ideological viewpoints.”

GDI meanwhile sees its role as countering the spread of low-quality content online, which proliferates because of an online ecosystem that targets advertising against readers, whatever website they land on, via programmatic systems.

Press Gazette understands that websites can appeal against their inclusion on GDI’s Dynamic Inclusion List and that sites can come off the list. But it does not appear that ratings are shared with publishers themselves, and the governance process around decisions made by GDI and appeals is also unclear.

GDI said in a statement: “GDI is a non-profit that brings transparency to digital advertising. We provide risk assessments of online news to the advertising industry, which uses this data to make more informed choices over the advertising they buy online.  Fully informed transactions between buyers and sellers are a key tenet of a free market.”

Rival news website rating company Newsguard recently downgraded its score for The New York Times because it said anti-Trump bias was apparent in news stories.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
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