What’s the Deal With Breitbart News and Yandex? Israel? Nothing?
In late March, the FBI told McClatchy they were investigating ‘right wing’ websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars as part of their investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At the same time, questions began to arise among researchers crowdsourcing information on Twitter about a Yandex verification meta tag discovered on Breitbart’s website. Yandex is Russia’s premiere search engine and internet-related product provider, sometimes referred to as ‘the Google of Russia.’ These tools could be used to build a powerful relationship between a Russian audience, Russian advertisers, and Breitbart.com. Since then, many theories and questions have arisen about the purpose and use of this meta-tag from plausible to bizarre.
The purpose of adding the “yandex-verification” identification code meta tag is to allow the owner of a website to prove their ownership to Yandex, giving the owner access to analytic software, search engine optimization (SEO) tools, and advertising products. Yandex is not currently commonly used outside of Russia and Eastern European states.
Though Breitbart.ru is a registered domain and Breitbart News may have plans to eventually expand its brand into Russia, there is currently no public evidence to show Breitbart.com has reached out to audiences in Russia through Yandex services. Are any other western media websites registered for Yandex analytics? A manual search through metadata for popular western media websites might suggest the answer is no, except for maybe one site.
The Yandex meta tag was added to the Breitbart News website between March 30th and March 31st, 2016, at the height of Republican nomination campaigns. Though it is unclear why it was added at this time, Daily Mail added the Yandex verification code to their DNS record no later than August, 2014. What is the correlation? Perhaps nothing other than both companies deciding to register their sites with Yandex to explore its analytic tools.
Still curious, I wondered what other connection Breitbart and Daily Mail might have that were uncommon for major western media websites and it didn’t take long to find one: Taboola, an Israeli advertising company based in New York and R&D in Tel Aviv.
Missing from Taboola’s featured list of partners is Breitbart News, which is striking considering Breitbart’s role in its billion dollar valuation. Taboola was founded by Adam Singolda, a seven year IDF veteran officer in the Israeli National Security Agency. In August of 2016, Taboola acquired ConvertMedia for $100M and with it its co-founder and now Taboola’s VP of video, Yoav Naveh — a six year veteran captain in the technological unit of the Israeli Intelligence Corp, the military intelligence division of the Israeli Defense Force. Taboola’s VP of Finance, Hagai Gold, is a former finance manager for the RSA Security division of EMC. Controversy surrounding RSA Security exploded in 2013 from the revelation that the NSA paid $10 million to install a backdoor in RSA encryption.
Adam Singolda has defended doing business with Breitbart News publically, but would not comment specifically on Breitbart’s content. Incidentally similar to Breitbart News, the Daily Mail and its privately held ownership also have a checkered history, from supporting fascism during World War II to now supporting far right political activism.
Daily Mail provided seed capital for Taboola followed by several rounds of venture capital investments, largely from Israeli investors. There appears to be firm commitment from investors and partners to continue their current relationships and expand. It also stands to reason, from both Andrew Breitbart’s history in Israel and the conception of Breitbart.com, that there would be a strong relationship remaining today, but with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government moving closer to Russia politically and technologically, there is a growing concern about information security and Russia’s interest in subverting the United States. While there is no definitive evidence that the use of a Yandex meta tag intrinsically means anything nefarious, what we can be sure of is that as organized crime, corporate antitrust actions, fraud, political subversion, and cyber warfare continue to put the data security of the public at risk, there will be an even sharper focus on these elements of business relationships and the technologies they choose to employ.