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Government-Funded ‘Disinformation’ Watchdog Blocking Media Ad Sales, Claims Journalist

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UnHerd editor told a parliamentary hearing his website was starved of advertising revenue by Global Disinformation Index for hosting ‘gender critical’ views.

The editor of a UK media website told a parliamentary hearing the company was deprived of advertising revenue because a government-funded private company labelled its writers’ opinion pieces as “disinformation.”

Freddie Sayers, the editor of UnHerd, appeared before a House of Lords select committee on the future of news on April 16 at which the subject of “disinformation” was discussed.

Mr. Sayers, who founded the YouGov polling agency before joining UnHerd, said that last year, the publication decided to put adverts on its website and went to three successive ad agencies, but only got a small fraction of the advertisers they expected, given their readership.

The third company revealed the reason for this was down to a third-party tech company they were using, Grapeshot, which used a company called the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) to obtain information about “brand safety” as a filtering process for potential clients who might buy adverts.

Grapeshot had placed UnHerd on a so-called “Dynamic Exclusion List,” Mr. Sayers said, meaning that it was effectively flagged up as an outlet companies might not want to be associated with as it could damage their brand.

When he probed further as to what the reason for this effective blacklisting was, Mr. Sayers said he was told it was because UnHerd had hosted so-called “gender critical” writers and academics, including Julie Bindel and Professor Kathleen Stock.

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The beliefs expressed by Ms. Bindel, Ms. Stock, and countless others are not unlawful, nor classed as “hate speech,” and being “gender critical” is in fact a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

But Mr. Sayers was told that UnHerd was considered to have platformed “anti-trans” and “anti-LGBT” narratives, even though one of these articles was written by trans-identified writer, Debbie Hayton.

Mr. Sayers said in a video shared to social media platform X that he believes UnHerd’s experience has uncovered “a worldwide system of censorship that crosses continents and that we think more people need to know about.”

UnHerd was founded in 2017 by Sir Paul Marshall, who also invested heavily in GB News. The website has a stated mission of promoting “slow news,” and has published a wide range of authors and scientists with a variety of different political viewpoints and persuasions.

‘Self-Appointed Organisation’ Deciding on Disinformation

Mr. Sayers described the situation as “a weird scenario where a self-appointed organisation is deciding that an explicitly legal and majority held view is enough to get an entire website blocked from international ad agencies.”

He dug deeper into the GDI and discovered it is funded by the UK government via the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), as well as receiving money from the European Union and from the governments of Germany and the United States.

Details of the funding were uncovered partly in response to a written question submitted by Conservative MP Philip Davies, which revealed that £2.6 million was given in the period up to last year, and that there is still “frequent contact” between the GDI and the FCDO’s Counter Disinformation and Media Development Programme.

The GDI was founded in 2018 with its stated objective being “disrupt the business model of disinformation” by ensuring “advertisers’ money and brands do not end up supporting high risk websites.”

The online biography of co-founder Clare Melford is published by the World Economic Forum and states that she worked as a management consultant for media and “led the transition of the European Council on Foreign Relations from being part of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation to independent status.”

GDI’s other co-founder, Daniel Rogers, has a CV stating he worked in the U.S. Intelligence Community before founding Terbium Labs, a company that uses AI and machine labs to “scour the internet for misinformation,” before selling it to Deloitte.

‘Something Can Be Accurate but Still Extremely Harmful’

In an interview hosted by the London School of Economics, Ms. Melford said, “A lot of disinformation is not just whether something is true or false—it escapes from the limits of fact-checking.”

“Something can be factually accurate but still extremely harmful … [the GDI] leads you to a more useful definition of disinformation … It’s not saying something is or is not disinformation, but it is saying that content on this site or this particular article is content that is anti-immigrant, content that is anti-women, content that is anti-Semitic.”

While some of the ratings are done by humans, chiefly for larger traffic websites, the GDI mainly uses bots to determine its ratings for smaller outlets.

According to Mr. Sayers, the GDI has broadened its definition of how it categorises “disinformation,” which was originally defined as “deliberately false content designed to deceive” to now include “an adversarial narrative.”

This means that information that may be factually accurate but challenges the official narrative—such as scientists speaking out against the COVID-19 response or raising concerns about vaccine damage—can get a publisher placed on the GDI list and so starved of advertising revenue.

President Donald Trump points to the media while criticising "fake news" at a Make America Great Again rally in Tampa, Fla., on July 31, 2018. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)
President Donald Trump points to the media while criticising “fake news” at a Make America Great Again rally in Tampa, Fla., on July 31, 2018. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

The GDI’s website lists the “Wuhan lab conspiracy theory” as one such narrative that could get a company blacklisted, even though this has been widely accepted as a legitimate, if unproven, theory on the origins of the disease and discussed in several parliaments across the world.

Another example of an “adversarial narrative” is the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, in which former President Donald Trump supporters marched into the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.

“Anything that might undermine global response to climate change” is another such forbidden narrative.

Mr. Sayers said, “The official narrative needs challenging, and journalists used to think it was part of their job,” pointing out that science is never “settled” and is always evolving.

‘Controlling the Media Conversation’

In an article for UnHerd, Mr. Sayers explains that “ratings agencies” such as the GDI are “a little-understood mechanism for controlling the media conversation.”

“In UnHerd’s case, the GDI verdict means that we only received between 2 percent and 6 percent of the ad revenue normally expected for an audience of our size. Meanwhile, neatly demonstrating the arbitrariness and subjectivity of these judgements, Newsguard, a rival ratings agency, gives UnHerd a 92.5 percent trust rating, just ahead of the New York Times at 87.6 percent,” he wrote.

Grapeshot, the intermediary tech company, was founded in the UK in 2006 and has since been acquired by Larry Ellison’s Oracle to automatically select appropriate websites for particular campaigns.

Mr. Sayers noted that the use of the word “disinformation” became far more prominent in the world’s media after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, with President Trump regularly accusing news outlets of “fake news,” while he himself was often accused of being responsible for “disinformation” in return.

The GDI put together a report in 2022 on the 10 “most dangerous sites in America,” listing many of the country’s most popular conservative news outlets, topped by the New York Post and including The Daily Wire and The Blaze. Meanwhile, the “least dangerous” news sites were mainly leftist publications, including NPR, The New York Times, Huff Post, and BuzzFeed.

In the United States, some websites are now taking legal action to challenge the ratings they have been given.

Appearing this week at the House of Lords Communication and Digital Committee, Mr. Sayers said he believed the activities of the GDI were merely “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the suppression of free speech and the plurality of media.

He wrote that, in his view, campaigners such as Ms. Melford are “lending legitimacy to a conspiratorial world view in which governments and corporations are in cahoots to censor political expression.”

“Unless something is done to stop them, they will continue to sow paranoia and distrust — and hasten us towards an increasingly radicalised and divided society.”

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