“Brand safety” killed Jezebel

Reality isn’t brand-safe.

Cory Doctorow
9 min readNov 11, 2023
A hellscape from Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,’ with every face replaced by a smiley emoji.

I’ll be at the Studio City branch of the LA Public Library this Monday, November 13 at 1830hPT to launch my new novel, The Lost Cause. There’ll be a reading, a talk, a surprise guest (!!) and a signing, with books on sale. Tell your friends! Come on down!

Progressives: if you want to lose to conservatives, all you need to do is reflexively praise and support everything conservatives turn into a culture-war issue, without considering whether they might be right. Because sometimes…they’re right.

Remember early in the Trump presidency, when conservatives all woke up and discovered that America’s spy agencies — excuse me, “the intelligence community” — were dirty-tricking psychos who run amok, lawlessly sabotaging democracy? Progressives have been shouting this ever since Hoover’s FBI tried to blackmail MLK into killing himself:


But millions of progressives forgot about COINTELPRO, CIA dirty tricks and CIA mass spying when this “intelligence community” temporarily set out to wrong-foot Trump. Remember James Comey votive candles?


Anthropologists have a name for this phenomenon, in which one side reverses its positions because their sworn enemies have done so. It’s called schizmogenesis, and it goes like this: “If they hate it, we love it”:


Schizmogenesis is an equal-opportunity delusion. Within living memory, white evangelicals supported abortion, because their sworn enemies — Catholics — opposed it. Some of those white Boomer women who voted Trump because abortion was literally the only issue they cared about held the opposite position on abortion not so long ago — and completely forgot about it:


The main purpose of the culture war isn’t immiserating marginalized people — that’s its effect, but its purpose is to distract low-information turkeys (working people) so they’ll vote for Christmas (the ongoing seizure of power by American oligarchs). For the funders of conservative movement politics, the cruelty isn’t the point, it’s merely the tactic. The point is power:


Which brings me to “woke capitalism.” Conservative string-pullers have whipped up their base about the threat of companies embracing social causes. They (erroneously) claim that corporations have progressive values, and that big business is thumbing the scales for causes they despise. The purpose here isn’t to sow distrust of capitalism per se. Rather, it’s to stampede talk-radio-addled supporters into backing the oligarchy’s agenda. Remember when culture war leaders told their base to support being gouged on credit-card junk fees “to own the libs?”


That’s schizmogenesis working against the conservative rank-and-file, tricking them into taking the side of a cartel of wildly profitable payment processors who are making billions by picking their pockets (credit card fees are up 40% since the covid lockdowns), because (checks notes), Target pays these profiteers a lot to process its payments, and Target sells Pride merch (no, really):


It’s easy to point and laugh at conservative dopes when they’re tricked into shooting themselves in the balls to own the libs. This is not a hypothetical example:


But progressives do it, too, particularly when they embrace monopolies as a force for positive social change. Remember 2019, when people got excited about playing loud pop music at Nazi rallies in the hopes that the monopoly video platforms’ copyright filters would make any video from that rally impossible to post?


I warned then that if this tactic worked, it would be used by cops to prevent you from recording them when they’re macing you or splitting your skull with a billyclub, and yup, within a couple years, cops were blaring Taylor Swift music in hopes of preventing the public from posting videos of their illegal conduct:


Conservatives are (partially) right about woke capitalism. It is a threat to democracy. Concentrating the power to decide who gets to speak and what they get to say into the hands of five or six corporations, mostly run by mediocre billionaires, is bad for society. The moderation decisions of giant platforms are a form of (commercial) censorship, even these don’t violate the First Amendment:


(The progressive delusion that censorship only occurs when the First Amendment is violated is a wild own-goal, one that excuses, for example, the decision by school book-fair monopolist Scholastic to remove books about queers and Black and brown people from its offerings as a purely private matter without consequences for free speech):


Conservatives are only partially right about woke capitalism, though. Here’s what they’re wrong about: corporations don’t have values. Target isn’t selling Pride tees because they support progressive causes, they’re selling them because it seems like a good way to increase returns to their shareholders. Individuals — even top executives — at Target might endorse the cause, but the company will only durably support the cause if that endorsement is profitable, which means that when it stops being profitable, the company will stop supporting the cause:


The idea that corporations have values isn’t merely stupid, it’s very dangerous. The Hobby Lobby decision — which allows corporations to deny basic health-care expenses for women on the basis that a Bronze Age mystic wouldn’t approve of an IUD — rests on the ideological foundation that corporate personhood includes corporate values:


Citizens United — the idea that corporations should be allowed to funnel unlimited funds to politicians who’ll sell out the public good in favor of investor profits — also depends on a form of corporate personhood that includes values:


There are undeniably instances in which corporate monopoly power benefits progressive causes, but these are side-effects of corporate power’s main purpose, namely: taking money and power away from working people and giving it to rich people. That is what monopoly power is for.

Which brings me to ad-tech, “brand safety,” and the demise of Jezebel, the 16 year old feminist website whose shuttering was just announced by its latest owner, G/O Media:


Jezebel’s demise is the direct result of monopoly power. Jezebel writes about current affairs — sex, politics, abortion, and other important issues of great moment and significance. When we talk about journalism as a public good, necessary for a healthy civic life, this is what we mean. But unfortunately for Jezebel — and any other news outlet covering current events — there are vast, invisible forces that exist solely to starve this kind of coverage of advertising revenue.

Writing for the independent news site 404 Media, reporter Emanuel Maiberg and former Motherboard editor-in-chief Jason Koebler go deep on the “brand safety” industry, whose mission is to assist corporations in blocking their ads from showing up alongside real news:


Maiberg and Koebler explain how industry associations like the World Federation of Marketers’ Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) promulgate “frameworks” to help advertisers automatically detect and exclude real news from consideration when their ads are placed:


This boycott makes use of scammy “AI” technology like “sentiment and emotional analysis” to determine whether an article is suitable for monetization. These parameters are then fed to the ad-tech duopoly’s ad auction system, so Google and Meta (who control the vast majority of online advertising) can ensure that real news is starved of cash.

But reality is not brand-safe, and high quality, reputable journalistic outlets are concerned with reality, which means that the “brand safe” outlets that attract the most revenue are garbage websites that haven’t yet been blacklisted by the ad-safety cartel, leading to major brands’ ads showing up alongside notorious internet gross-out images like “goatse”:


More than a fifth of “brand safe” ad placements end up on “made for advertising” sites, which 404 Media describe as “trash websites that plagiarize content, are literally spam, pay for fake traffic, or are autogenerated websites that serve no other purpose than capturing ad dollars”:


Despite all this, many progressives have become cheerleaders for “brand safety,” as a countervailing force to the drawdown of trust and safety at online platforms, which led to the re-platforming of Nazis, QAnon conspiratorialists, TERFs, and other overt elements of the reactionary movement’s vanguard on Twitter and Facebook. Articles about ads for major brands showing up alongside Nazi content on Twitter are now a staple of progressive reporting, presented as evidence of Elon Musk’s lack of business acumen. The message of these stories is “Musk is bad at business because he’s allowing Nazis on his platform, which will send advertisers bolting for the exits to avoid brand-safety crises.”

This isn’t wrong. Musk is a bad businessman (he’s a good scam artist, though). Twitter is hemorrhaging advertisers, notwithstanding the desperate (and easily debunked) stats-juking its “CEO,” Linda Yaccarino, floats onstage at tech conferences:


But progressives are out of their minds if they think the primary effect of the brand safety industry is punishing Elon Musk for secretly loving Nazis. The primary effect of brand safety is killing reality-based coverage of the news of the day, and since reality has a well-known anti-conservative bias, anything that works against the reality-based community is ultimately good for oligarchy:


We can’t afford to let schizmogenesis stampede us into loving things just because conservative culture warriors have been momentarily tricked into hating them as part of oligarchs’ turkeys-voting-for-Christmas project. “Swivel-eyed loons hate it, so it must be good,” is a worse-than-useless heuristic for navigating complex issues:


A much better rule of thumb is “If oligarchs love something, it’s probably bad.” Almost without exception, things that are good for oligarchs are bad for the rest of us. I mean, this whole shuttering of Jezebel starts with an oligarch imposing his will on millions of other people. Jezebel began life as a Gawker Media site, beloved of millions of readers, destroyed when FBI informant Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the publisher in a successful bid to put them out of business to retaliate for their unfavorable coverage of Thiel:


This, in turn, put Jezebel under the ownership of G/O Media, who are unwilling to pay for a human salesforce that would — for example — sell advertising space on Jezebel to sex-toy companies or pro-abortion groups. G/O has been on a killing spree, shuttering beloved news outlets like Deadspin:


G/O’s top exec, an oligarch named Jim Spanfeller who answers to the private equity looters at Great Hill Partners, is bent on ending reality-based coverage in favor of “letting robots shit out brand safe AI-assisted articles about generic topics”:


Three quarters of a century ago, Orwell coined a term to describe this kind of news: duckspeak,

It was not the man’s brain that was speaking it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words but it was not speech in true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness like the quacking of a duck.

When investors and analysts speak of “content” (rather than, say, “journalism”), this is what they mean — a warm slurry of platitudes, purged of any jagged-edged fragments to render it a perfectly suitable carrier for commercial messages targeted based on surveillance data about the “consumer” whose eyeballs are upon it.

This aversion to reality has been present among corporate decisionmakers since the earliest days, but the consolidation of power among large firms — ad-tech firms, online platforms, and “brands” themselves — makes corporate realityphobia much easier to turn into, well, reality, giving advertisers the fine-grained power to put Jezebel and every site like it out of business.

As Koebler and Maiberg’s headliine so aptly puts it, “Advertisers Don’t Want Sites Like Jezebel to Exist.”

The reason to deplore Nazis on Twitter is because they are Nazis, not because their content isn’t brand-safe. The short-term wins progressives gain by legitimizing a corporate veto over what we see online are vastly overshadowed by the most important consequence of brand safety: the mass extinction of reality-based reporting. Reality isn’t brand safe. If you’re in the reality based community, brand safety should be your sworn enemy, even if they help you temporarily get a couple of Nazis kicked off Twitter.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: