Federal Politics
Science + Tech

Site that Advertised Lie about NDP’s Singh a Client of Israeli Ad Firm

Israeli publication gets closer to origin of ad that sparked federal probe.

By Bryan Carney 18 Jun 2019 |

Bryan Carney is director of web production at The Tyee and reports on technology and privacy issues. You can follow his very occasional tweets at @bpcarney.

Following The Tyee’s report about an ad appearing to smear NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during a byelection, an Israeli publication visited the Tel Aviv offices of a company connected to the ad.

The company OMG Studios, whose website claims it focuses on digital media and the advertising domain, refused to comment, asking the reporter at tech publication CTECH in Israel to leave.

OMG Studios later sent a comment to CTECH that Attorney Cocktail — a celebrity clickbait website that showed Singh’s picture next to one of a mansion it falsely claimed belonged to him — was indeed a client.

The admission appears to confirm the connection suspected by the Commissioner of Canada Elections, which noticed the website Attorney Cocktail contained a link on its contact page naming OMG Studios.

Documents obtained by Blacklock’s Reporter following up on The Tyee report showed that OMG Studios changed link text on Attorney Cocktail to point to a domain on the same site, but had forgotten to modify the actual link, revealing the OMG Studio domain.

Earlier this year, The Tyee spotted the false ad on a page of the Vancouver Courier, below actual news content. The ad pointed the reader to an article on another publication named Attorney Cocktail. The only indication that the Vancouver Courier did not arrange or review such ads were the words, in tiny letters easy for the reader to miss, “Ad content provided by Taboola.”

Taboola reportedly serves 20 billion ads to online publications every day.

The false content of the Jagmeet Singh ad, Taboola CEO Adam Singolda told The Tyee, “was a clear violation of our policy and it has been removed from our network.” However he refused to tell The Tyee who its fake ad-creating client was. Now OMG Studios appears to confirm it was a client of Taboola. But OMG Studios has still stopped short of naming who its own client is at Attorney Cocktail. That is, if OMG Studios itself is not the author of the ad, as it claims.

Meanwhile, a federal probe based on a Commissioner of Canada Elections assessment that laws have been broken is three months along and has yet to publicly identify who created the fake ad.

OMG Studios, which now uses the name Frontstory, told CTECH it takes no responsibility for content its clients create. “According to Frontstory’s website, its founder and CEO is Dan Avidar, formerly of OMG Studios, and many of its employees are former OMG employees. Taboola is listed as a partner,” reported CTECH.

OMG Studios did not respond when The Tyee previously reached out.

“After being contacted by the Canadian Commissioner of Elections [Canada],” the company told CTECH in a statement, it “contacted the operators of Attorney Cocktail and was told that the article connecting Singh to the mansion was published in good faith and without malice.”

It remains to be seen what motivated the genesis of the false portrayal of Singh’s wealth and lifestyle at a moment when the NDP leader was campaigning on the issue of affordable housing.

Was it simply one of millions of opportunistic attempts to make pennies from celebrity clickbait articles, accidentally picking up via algorithms on a high-profile byelection while choosing targets?

Or was it a carefully planned smear designed to sneak in false, negative associations with Singh via the Trojan horse of “related content” zones, not moderated by website owners like Vancouver Courier unless it receives a complaint?

New federal rules designed to deal with election interference and spending hadn’t taken effect when the ad was placed. But if the pace of the investigation and any repercussions dealing with previous rules in place are a measure of what is to come, it seems likely that damaging messages could be delivered and votes cast long before governments can fully react and assign responsibility.  [Tyee]

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