Breitbart News threatens Sleeping Giants with a lawsuit

In November of 2016, a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants appeared and gained notoriety. It named—and publicly shamed—advertisers whose ads were running on Breitbart News. According to some estimates, the Sleeping Giants campaign has been extremely effective in persuading advertisers to cut ties with the site. (Some may have been unaware that their ads appeared there, if they were placing them through a third-party network.)

The following year, over a two-month period, Breitbart reportedly lost about 90 percent of its advertisers. The Sleeping Giant account posted a spreadsheet listing more than 4,000 advertisers that it claims have dropped out.

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Now Breitbart is fighting back. In a letter to Sleeping Giants and its founder—Matt Rivitz, a freelance copywriter who was unmasked early this year by The Daily Caller—a Breitbart representative writes that the outlet is considering a civil lawsuit, and demands that Rivitz retain correspondence that he or Sleeping Giants might have had related to a “months-long smear campaign” (as Breitbart calls it), including discussions with executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon, as well as reporters, advertisers, and ad networks.

Breitbart’s representative writes that potential claims against Sleeping Giants include violation of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark protection), tortious interference, and “unfair, fraudulent, and deceptive practices intended to cause Breitbart economic harm.” The company’s letter (which has also been published on Breitbart News) goes on to say that Breitbart believes Sleeping Giants “has sought to deceive the public and, in particular, purchasers of online advertising, by making false, deceptive, and disparaging claims about Breitbart” and has run a “highly-orchestrated, partisan campaign whose organizers have proven willing to use deception and harassment.”

What kind of deception? Breitbart’s representative says the project used bots to trigger ads appearing on its site and take snapshots of them, then created scripts that made it easy for other users to share those screenshots with advertisers and on social media. “Companies perceived these tweets as customer feedback,” the letter says, “even though in many, if not most, cases the activist sending the tweet never actually saw that ad on the Breitbart website.”

The letter asks Sleeping Giant to retain any and all correspondence with a number of people, including Anil Dash of Glitch, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, and BuzzFeed writer Craig Silverman.

In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, Rivitz said: “Sleeping Giants lets advertisers know that their ads are appearing on a website that publishes articles with titles like ‘There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews.’ Breitbart can say whatever they want, and that’s what makes this country great, but it doesn’t mean they need to get paid for it by an advertiser who didn’t know their ads were on the site.” Whether Breitbart actually goes ahead with a lawsuit, or is just saber-rattling in the hope of frightening Sleeping Giants and its supporters, remains to be seen.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.