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.

Is it ultimately that they don’t want to interrupt their revenue stream?
Everything comes back to the money. I think they are probably terrified of being regulated. With Alex Jones, President Trump thanked him and is obviously a big fan, so for political reasons it seems like they’re not enforcing their own terms of service. If politics doesn’t matter and this guy says something that breaks the rules, then he should be gone.

Let’s talk about how you got doxxed this month.
Disqus is high up on my list of beefs. They specifically forbid doxxing … and the day I got doxxed, there were 600 comments on Breitbart, at least 100 of which had personal information about me. It took them four to five days to bring those down. I reached out to Disqus 100,000 times. I tweeted right at the editor at large at Breitbart and said, are you going to take down the comment that’s threatening my son at the synagogue we used to go to with their number and address, or are you going to put your kid’s synagogue on there as well?

It’s incredibly dangerous. Lots of these companies don’t believe there will be real-world consequences to their lack of oversight, but we’re seeing right now that there is a tremendous amount. They texted me, they called my wife, they posted my kids’ names, they posted my address and my parents’ address … everything. Daniel Ha, the CEO of Disqus, has gotten back to me since and claimed that they have the highest quality features to filter out this stuff. But whatever they are, they’re not working. These companies have to realize that, and they don’t.

This speaks to me about the corrosive effect social media has had on our general discourse.
I’ve had everyone in my life ask me to step away from it. It’s an obsessive habit, and I can’t wait to kick my phone into whatever ocean I’m near and be done with it. Right now it’s valuable … and it’s the reason why I try to keep everything as civil as possible. I do think people get siloed into what they believe and only talk to people who believe the same things. That leaves an opening for bad actors to do what they’re going to do, and that’s why fake news and YouTube videos are such a danger. The algorithm feeds you things you’re interested in, and if you like videos that say the Sandy Hook parents are faking it, then that’s what you’re going to believe.

"Lots of these companies don't believe there will be real world consequences to their lack of oversight."

I’m surprised that The Daily Caller was able to out you based on old social media posts from yourself, your wife and her friend.
I think it’s crazy that they could somehow find a tweet from a private Twitter account that I deactivated a year and a half ago. If that happens to me, I can’t imagine how it happens to others every day. And for people who grow up with social media, you make stupid mistakes when you’re a kid that could stall your life forever. People can dig up whatever, even if you are private. That was my biggest beef with what Daily Caller did. It was pretty miraculous that they tracked me down, but the fact that they were able to put my name, my wife’s name and my friend’s name out there and have everyone harassed within an hour is pretty pathetic.

Did you ever plan to reveal your name?
It was never really about me. I didn’t view it that way. At some point I wanted to have a bigger platform to talk about this, and I think that this happening, even though the way it happened was unfortunate, was also fortuitous, because now I have a larger, broader conversation about our responsibility in media and how companies spend their money. I like that part, because there was never a public face to it.

I wonder if there is a real solution to this problem.
The social media companies and the advertisers that support them need to figure out what kind of world we want to live in, and they need to come up with a better set of principles that they’re willing to follow. Then I think good things will start to happen, because ultimately they hold the purse strings. Everyone has been spending their money thoughtlessly. Companies will put pressure on social media companies to stop the harassment of school shooting victims, the fake news and the conspiracy theories. They haven’t been able to look in the mirror and realize the damage they’re doing by not acting on it.

Has this had any effect on your day job?
I’ve had love and support from people I know and lots of people I don’t know hitting me up on LinkedIn. Ultimately I haven’t, by design, taken dollar one from this project … and I’d like that to continue.

Join Adweek on Friday, June 5th at 12pm ET for A State of Revolt, a live discussion with Black business leaders who will share how they are personally and professionally navigating today’s turbulent times, what actions they recommend for everyone to take to accelerate systematic change and more. RSVP now.

Recommended articles