Q&A: Sleeping Giants Founder Talks InfoWars, Doxxing and the Corrosive Effects of Social Media

Matt Rivitz wants to hold digital platforms responsible

The agency veteran has worked as a freelance creative for several years.
Matt Rivitz, Sleeping Giants

Matt Rivitz never thought it would get this big.

The freelance copywriter, who formerly worked for a series of agencies including Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Cutwater, started Sleeping Giants in late 2016 with a single tweet that asked finance brand SoFi why its ads appeared on Breitbart, a website funded by conservative billionaire and Donald Trump supporter Robert Mercer.

In less than two years, the group has amassed 174,000 followers on Twitter and 55,000 on Facebook while convincing nearly 4,000 brands to stop placing their ads on the site. Last summer, MediaRadar estimated that Breitbart had lost 90 percent of its advertisers.

The people running the group were completely anonymous until earlier this month, when conservative blog The Daily Caller outed Rivitz, his wife and one of his former colleagues at Wieden + Kennedy. The founder later gave his first official interview to The New York Times along with Nandini Jammi, a freelance copywriter based in Berlin who is one of the individuals that helps him run the accounts.

Adweek spoke with Rivitz in the wake of his newfound celebrity.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

"The social media companies and the advertisers that support them need to figure out what kind of world we want to live in."

Adweek: How has the response been since your name was made public?
Matt Rivitz: It’s manageable. People are starting to reach out, but I don’t think anyone has been able to fully digest what happened this week. I’m also trying to keep my day job going, so it’s pretty intense all around.

When we spoke last year and I had no idea who you were, you said your goal with this project was to “make hate less profitable.” How successful do you think you’ve been?
It’s definitely far exceeded what I ever expected. I thought it was going to be a two-week project where I contacted a couple of advertisers on Breitbart to see why they supported that kind of material. When I started in the industry, you would take your TV spot and know exactly where it was going to air, at what time and on what show. That disappeared with the rise of programmatic buying. People didn’t know what they were paying for. I think until this project got going, no one thought about it that much. All in all, I’m pleased with the numbers, but I’m more pleased that the industry is more aware of where their ads are going, where future placements will go and what they choose to support.

How do brands generally respond?
We’ve had some emails, but the vast majority will get back to us via tweet. Twitter is a very public medium, and they are really happy to tell everyone. I’ve always viewed it as a service; the majority of advertisers don’t want to be on Breitbart. Today we heard from Crate and Barrel and the city of Milwaukee … 99 percent of the tweets we get back are very thankful that we let them know.

Is the takeaway that most brands don’t want to be associated with any controversial content?
Controversy is good sometimes. … There are plenty of right- and left-leaning publications that don’t resort to racism and bigotry and sexism. The Wall Street Journal leans right, but they can talk about policy and immigration without blaming people that don’t need to be blamed. These brands have lots of money to spend, and you would hope they don’t use it to disparage people.

Yet Breitbart seems to see this as a left-versus-right sort of thing.
A lot of people say voices on certain sides are being silenced, and ultimately, that’s a way to muddy the waters and make it about politics versus what it really is, which is xenophobia and racism.

How would you respond to their statement that you are engaging in “speech suppression through economic force?”
We [consumers] can use our money however we want, and we can certainly ask the companies whose products we use every day, the companies that we work for and work with, to at least think about how their money is used. It’s a free country; it’s free speech, and they can print whatever they want. But advertisers don’t need to be forced to pay for it because they use a certain ad-serving company. That’s on Google and Facebook for putting advertisers on that site. Breitbart is a test case that has helped the industry realize that this is just one example of where your money is going.

Had you ever worked on social media campaigns before you started Sleeping Giants?
No, I hadn’t. Most of my experience was with TV campaigns and storytelling at the brand level. I do think being a writer was and continues to be very helpful; I always enjoyed writing on Facebook. Knowing the industry a little bit and having the past I have also helped.

"We [as consumers] can use our money however we want, and we can certainly ask the companies whose products we use everyday to at least think about how their money is used."

How did you work to grow the project?
I think timing was everything. It started right after the election, and people wanted to be engaged in a way that felt like they were moving something forward when petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the “Muslim ban” didn’t do anything. When the first brand got back to me, I felt like I had defunded racism by a couple of tiny percentage points. That felt really good to me, and two or three weeks in I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own … all of a sudden the advertisers were coming off in groups of 5, 10, 20 at a time, and I think people felt like they had done something. That was extremely fortuitous.

Did anything help it expand, like Breitbart’s decision to run a #DumpKelloggs campaign?
That was a gift. They had a boycott Kellogg’s banner right over the advertise with Breitbart banner, so they were saying, advertise with us … but if you mess with us we’re going to boycott you. As an advertiser, why would you ever want to be associated with a site like that?

How did you organize the international accounts?
It was all happenstance. The EU account was someone who had been participating along the way and all of a sudden [the new handle] popped up. They recruited people over there that they knew. People approach us every once in a while about starting their own chapter in their own country, and we’ll just talk to them a bit to verify them and then off they go. We don’t know anyone’s name, by the way.

Interesting that SG got attention at the same time as the conversations around brand safety and YouTube.
It just so happened that a couple of instances happened to holding companies at the same time we were having that conversation. We’ve been pretty critical of a lot of these social media companies for their lack of oversight.

So the ultimate responsibility lies with the owners of the platforms.
There’s no doubt. [Facebook and YouTube’s refusal to de-verify or block InfoWars] has been a mission over the past few months. They are bending over backwards to avoid having to 86 this guy who is clearly breaking their rules. It’s one thing if there’s a lack of oversight. But we all have to agree to terms of service … and they’re not enforcing the rules that they themselves wrote. That’s inexcusable. They have different standards for everyone. If you’re going to do this then just don’t have terms of service.

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