Antitrust or Anti-truth? Jim Jordan’s Latest Attack on the “War on Disinformation”

Representative Jim Jordan continues his attack on institutions that mitigate harmful digital content — this time, under the guise of antitrust enforcement.

Last week, Chairman Jim Jordan took another step in his campaign to leverage the House Judiciary Committee and its oversight powers to preserve the ability to use disinformation as a political strategy. The committee issued letters to the CEOs of some of the world’s largest advertisers, seeking records about their communications – companies like Diageo (one of the largest global spirits companies); GroupM (world’s largest media investment company); Mars, Incorporated; Procter & Gamble; and Unilever. What do these companies have in common, besides huge media budgets? They’re all members of the governance body of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), an initiative chartered by the World Federation of Advertisers to address the challenge of harmful content on digital media platforms and its monetization via advertising. The House Judiciary letters accused the CEOs of “coordinating GARM members’ efforts to demonetize and eliminate disfavored content online” and “colluding to demonetize conservative platforms and voices.” Most troublingly, the letters refer to “potential legislative remedies” and refer to the Committee’s oversight of both the “adequacy” and enforcement of U.S. antitrust laws.

Representative Jordan has a history of using his position as Chairman to send the Judiciary Committee after businesses taking positions he and his party do not like. For example, last year, he sent subpoenas to some of the leading investment firms advancing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. That includes goals like lowering pollution, controlling carbon dioxide emissions, and ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce. As is the case with the letters to GARM, those subpoenas were sent under the guise of “antitrust enforcement.” This time, Jordan has decided to go after advertisers who don’t want their brands’ advertising content placed next to hate speech, foreign propaganda, networked disinformation campaigns, and other harmful content, threatening companies who do so with antitrust investigations and potentially new laws. 

Representative Jordan’s choice to go after GARM for trying to pull ad funding from sites that promote disinformation is just one manifestation of a counter-campaign against the “war on disinformation” that we have described before. Hearings, investigations, angry letters, and amicus briefs implicating digital platforms, academic researchers and the White House – most of them focused on collaboration to protect election information integrity – have already had the extremely detrimental impacts of stalling coordination, reductions in research investments, the chilling of platform content moderation efforts, and deemphasizing of political news on platforms. Under the auspices of the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government” – a subcommittee Jordan invented soon after Republicans took control of the House – hearings provided a platform for the so-called “Twitter Files,” which asserted, among other things, that Twitter had collaborated with the government to suppress conservative voices. Having encouraged platforms to gut their content moderation approaches (and watching advertisers leave Twitter, now X, in droves), the Judiciary Committee going after advertisers themselves was the logical next step.

What Is GARM and Why Do Companies Care About Responsible Media?

As a former marketing executive, I spent over 20 years working to build brands while partnering with large digital platforms to create increasingly sophisticated and targeted advertising tools. As the use of algorithms (and later, programmatic auctions) to place those ads skyrocketed, advertisers lost control over and even visibility to where their ads were placed. They ended up on sites that spread conspiracy theories, hate speech, and disinformation. With billion-dollar budgets, prized brand reputations, and fickle consumer loyalty at stake, advertisers adopted strategies – first “white lists” and “black lists” of content; then increasingly sophisticated monitoring systems to protect brand safety; and then coalitions in which advertisers could share and promote best practices – to protect their investments.

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a project started by the World Economic Forum, sprung up in 2020 to help companies protect their brands from being associated with harmful content on digital platforms and to address the challenges the current opaque, monopolistic digital advertising system poses. GARM creates working groups to develop best practices to improve online safety for brands and increase advertisers’ confidence in digital advertising. Organizations like GARM serve the essential business need of ensuring return on investment for the estimated $30 billion in global digital advertising each year. 

Rep. Jordan’s attempt to tie the hands of GARM and its advertiser members through threats of antitrust investigations and new law is part of a larger campaign on the right to silence criticism, deter content moderation, and protect the ability to use disinformation campaigns to achieve political ends. When undertaken by Congress, these actions chill First Amendment-protected speech and intimidate organizations who call attention to the prevalence of hate and disinformation on online platforms. But it’s not just Congress: In a related case, a district court judge just granted a motion to dismiss a complaint by Elon Musk and X against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), noting that the complaint was “unabashedly and vociferously” about punishing CCDH for speaking out about disinformation and hate on X.

It’s particularly ironic that Rep. Jordan is threatening antitrust investigations to suppress views he doesn’t like just weeks after he and his colleagues filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court in Murthy v. Missouri, arguing that the mere threat of antitrust investigations is an archetypal example of dangerous and illegal coercion by the government. While Public Knowledge has always supported robust antitrust enforcement, Rep. Jordan’s perversion of it will lead to nothing but the further deterioration of our information ecosystem.