For years, Alex Jones, the proprietor of far-right internet hellhole InfoWars, was able to monetize disgusting lies about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a gunman shot and killed 26 people including 20 children before dying by suicide. Jones was particularly obsessed with selling the idea that the whole thing was a fake staged by shadowy government agents, with the family and loved ones of those killed actually just well-paid “crisis actors” playing a role for the cameras.
This eventually resulted in unprecedented pushback, leaving Jones in a vulnerable position. In November 2016, he feinted at a backtrack by uploading a rambling video titled “Alex Jones Final Statement on Sandy Hook” in which he simultaneously tried to walk back some of his claims while doubling down on others as just good-faith questions worthy of further investigation. It wasn’t actually Jones’s final statement on the matter, and he’d continue to spread the crisis actor hoax into 2017, all while the resistance against him was growing. Over the next few years, Jones and his site would face bans on virtually every major social media platform and a series of potentially financially devastating defamation lawsuits brought in Texas and Connecticut by relatives of victims of the massacre he would eventually lose in default judgments in October and November (damages in both sets of cases have yet to be awarded).
One of Jones’s financial lifelines until 2018 or so was his partnership with Revcontent, one of the biggest web advertising services that specialize in shoving link modules (often called “chumboxes”) into sites across the internet.
In January 2017, however, that pipeline threatened to run dry when Revcontent’s compliance team received complaints that Infowars was violating its policies against “fake news.” That policy clearly bans publishers from promoting content that is “demonstrably false or which is meant to intentionally deceive a consumer,” which is arguably the business of a conspiracy site.
Gizmodo obtained two emails showing how Revcontent managers intervened and even apologized to Infowars from Farrar & Ball attorney Mark Bankston. Bankston obtained the documents via the discovery process while representing plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits in Texas.
In an email sent to Infowars parent company Free Speech Systems’s business operations manager Timothy Fruge on the morning of Jan. 11, 2017, Revcontent’s compliance team wrote that a number of articles on Infowars may be in violation of the policy. In order to stay on Revcontent’s network, they wrote, Infowars would need to either document the editorial process by which the articles were created, revise them, or remove them:
One of those posts was Jones’s supposedly “final” statement on Sandy Hook. That video has since been deleted from the Infowars website, but transcripts show that Jones reiterated his claims of a “cover-up,” asserted that one of the fathers of the victims was doing “classic acting training where he’s laughing and joking,” and that CNN and other outlets had staged interviews, among other wild allegations. He concluded, “I’ve watched a lot of soap operas, and I’ve seen actors before. And I know when I’m watching a movie and when I’m watching something real. Let’s look into Sandy Hook.”
In another one of the flagged posts, the one featuring a “retired FBI agent” from 2015, Jones pointed at supposed evidence of a conspiracy at Sandy Hook and commented, “I mean, it’s fake. The whole thing is just—I don’t know what happened. It’s kind of like if you saw a hologram at Disney World in the haunted house… the haunted house and the ghosts are flying around, they’re not real, folks.” Later in the video, he claims that the mass shooting was a “Manhattan project of the gun-grabbers.”
Fortunately for Jones, someone at Revcontent was not only willing to override the compliance team’s decision but personally apologize to Infowars for suggesting their content was bullshit. In an email to Fruge dated later that afternoon, senior business development manager (now listed as vice president of business development on LinkedIn) Matt Hoy claimed the team had made an “error” and Revcontent had summoned its lawyers to explain to the staffers their original determination “goes against everything we believe in as a company.” Hoy further reassured Fruge that the conspiracy content was A-OK in its eyes:
This was sent out in error from our compliance team, I am having our legal team speak with them as it goes against everything we believe in as a company. We are 100% free speech and speak openly about this in the media. There is no issue at all with the content and or payments etc.
I am sorry for this email, but rest assured we are taking measures on end to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“Anyone who brings up free speech in these debates is missing the point,” said Claire Atkin, one of the co-founders of the Check My Ads Institute, a recently rolled out watchdog group meant to monitor the third-party ad vendors working with far-right and misinfo-laden outlets.
“Adtech companies have the same responsibility to their clients as any other company,” Atkin told Gizmodo. “We expect them to uphold their own standards.”
Back when InfoWars was Revcontent’s client, it acted as a so-called “publisher” on the Revcontent network. And in that spot, it had a pretty sweet deal. Jones would pop one of those chumbox modules beneath articles about, say, “Pedophile Rights” or “Hillary Clinton being a mass murderer,” and wait for people visiting his site to click on those stories, scroll down, and get sucked in by one of those chumbox stories. While we can’t say for sure exactly what people were clicking on (since InfoWars doesn’t use the Revcontent modules anymore), it’s worth assuming that this was typical chumbox fare: think clickbait lists about celebrities and anti-aging tips that definitely don’t work.
Advertisers pay out a certain chunk of change to get those listicles and blogs featured in Revcontent’s modules, and those payouts happen when someone clicks on one of those boxes.
The company distinguishes itself from other chumbox giants like Outbrain and Taboola by offering publishers in their network more bang for their buck. While Taboola takes about half of whatever an advertiser pays per click, Revcontent claims to only take 20%—meaning that its publisher partners rake in 80% of whatever cash an advertiser throws down. (Full disclosure: Gizmodo and other sites operated by our parent company, G/O Media, also use Taboola chumboxes.)
Reached for comment, Revcontent said only that it terminated its relationship with Infowars after a change in management, lining up roughly with the company’s replacement of former CEO John Lemp with Omar Nicola in December 2018.
“While Revcontent does not typically comment on litigation involving third parties we can say that the email you provided does not reflect the culture or priorities of our company since a leadership change in 2018,” a Revcontent representative wrote to Gizmodo from its support email address. “Revcontent has not worked with Infowars since that time, will not do so in the future, and is not aware of its service being utilized to monetize Mr. Jones’ content on any other platform.”
Even if InfoWars is no longer one of the pubs being paid out by Revcontent, there’s plenty of other, er, “questionable” outlets that are. Breitbart still uses the company’s chumboxes to monetize, as does a site called JesusDaily.com. RT was using their modules until August of this year, and LiveLeak only stopped using them in April.
In fact, Revcontent was pretty proud of its relationship with far-right and conservative sites as recently as 2017. That year, in a Adexchanger article about the monetization tricks for far-right sites, Revcontent was mentioned as a company that worked “across the spectrum of political media,” with the report citing names like Newsweek and The Atlantic on the left, and Breitbart and InfoWars on the right. Conservative audiences, the article noted, drove more activity:
The company reports 2.5 million readers from right-wing media sites clicked on immigration-related stories last year, while the top liberal news topic, gun control, funneled 350,000 total visitors to stories on the issue. The ninth most-trafficked issue for right-wing news, LGBTQ stories, generated 900,000 clicks in the same period.
More traffic means more money for Revcontent, so it’s not surprising that the company would seek out relationships where its competitors shied away. What is surprising is how quickly the company backpedaled from this approach: just months after that Adexchanger article went out, Revcontent launched the “Truth in Media Initiative” encouraging users to report hoax sites that promoted its chumboxes. Despite this, BuzzFeed reported in 2017 that Revcontent’s content ad module was present on 22 of the top 100 most popular fake news sites. That was more than any of its competitors, like Outbrain or Taboola. According to BuzzFeed, Revcontent cleared many of the sites to continue using its ad tools.
In February 2018, rival ad network Taboola told Digiday it was taking action to ensure it wasn’t doing any business with Infowars after Jones started to spread conspiracy theories about another mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida. A spokesperson for Revcontent defended the company’s arrangement with Infowars to Digiday at that time, stating they had “yet to be given any links that violate our extremely stringent terms with regards to editorial process.”
Later that year, Revcontent said it would be working with independent fact-checkers to clear out misinformation from its network. But while Revcontent now appears to be steering clear of any associations with the main Infowars website, Check My Ads co-founder Nandini Jammi found that as of July 2021, Revcontent ads are still helping to monetize content featuring Jones on other parts of the right-wing web, like video site Rumble.
Revcontent is one of the ad networks that compete for and appear on videos across Rumble, including not only those featuring Jones but ones promoting other conspiracy theories like “Bill Gates depopulation control agenda” and “Truth About QANON and Trump! Military in TOTAL Control. DO NOT FEAR.”
Videos uploaded by Jones’s official account on Rumble don’t appear to have these chumboxes, but Revcontent’s ads still appear below other videos that feature Jones. Gizmodo also saw pre-roll video ads by Revcontent on some of that content, though a search on Dec. 9 showed the videos in question now served up pre-roll “Ads by Rumble”.
Neither Infowars nor Rumble responded to a request for comment on this article. Likewise, Revcontent did not respond to questions about its relationship with Rumble, though it did say that it was unaware of helping to monetize Alex Jones content on other platforms. Last week, a Twitter user noticed it had scrubbed a legacy reference to Infowars from its database of sellers.
Nandini told Gizmodo that she “wasn’t surprised” to see a company like Revcontent actively pursuing these sorts of relationships, especially considering the company’s shoddy track record.
Jones’s luck, for what it’s worth, has continued getting worse.
As a recent Vice piece noted, the defamation lawsuits over the Sandy Hook case aren’t necessarily the end of his legal troubles: He is still facing a separate defamation suit brought by Brennan Gilmore, the man who videotaped the death of protester Heather Heyer and the injury of scores of others at the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Jones, who spoke at a right-wing rally in DC the night before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, has also been issued a congressional subpoena to explain his role in what happened. In the meantime, Vice wrote, Jones appears to be trying to maintain relevance by pivoting to a more New Age-y and presumably less legally risky type of conspiracism, such as a new Infowars show called Reset Wars starring a hypnotist that Jones promises will help viewers “[transcend] the third dimension”.