Since 2016, copywriter Matt Rivitz and marketer Nandini Jammi have run Sleeping Giants, a social media campaign group that has pressured companies to stop financially supporting far-right media. They persuaded more than 4,000 companies to pull ads from Breitbart. They helped drive Bill O'Reilly from Fox News. They have independently run affiliates in nearly a dozen countries.
And today, they are splitting up over a dispute centered on titles, credit, and equality.
“It was clear that even though I was doing the same level of work as Matt, he did not consider me an equal.”
“My life has revolved around Sleeping Giants for nearly four years now, and I had accepted that this movement was more important than whatever I’ve been going through,” Jammi told BuzzFeed News. “But it was clear that even though I was doing the same level of work as Matt, he did not consider me an equal.”
Sleeping Giant's decentralized structure — in which Jammi and Rivitz initially split duties without one of them formally being in charge — allowed it to move quickly and win impressive victories. But the conflict over the public face of the group would never be resolved — and eventually broke it apart. Jammi said that she treated Sleeping Giants as a full-time job and led several of its successes, but Rivitz never properly recognized her leadership.
Social media has made it easier for activist groups — from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter — to take decentralized forms, lowering the barriers to participation. “It is the ultimate form of early 21st-century activism. It can be three people in a basement in a laptop,” Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, told BuzzFeed News. But decentralization comes with its own problems.
Jammi is now leaving the organization she helped build at a moment when the activist group is urging advertiser boycotts against Facebook. In an all-volunteer organization where no one is paid, titles and credit took on an even greater significance.
“I’m still going to be here working everyday to solve the issues we first brought awareness to when we first started this campaign,” Jammi said. “I will still be here supporting the activists and organizations who are fighting this fight around the world.”Awnewyork / AWNewYork / Shutterstock
“For better or worse, every organization needs a leader and that role in Sleeping Giants has belonged to me, regardless of title,” Rivitz told BuzzFeed News.
“Nandini and I have had multiple discussions around what a founder is and have a fundamental disagreement on what construes that title,” Rivitz said. But he added, “I consider Nandini to be a partner and collaborator, and a great one.”
“Nandini and I have had multiple discussions around what a founder is and have a fundamental disagreement on what construes that title.”
(Disclaimer: I first met Jammi at the University of Maryland, where we worked on the student newspaper together. We’ve been in occasional contact on social media in the years since.)
According to the many published accounts of Sleeping Giants’ genesis, and interviews with Rivitz, Jammi, and others who worked with the group, its story goes like this:
Rivitz, an ad industry veteran who lives in California, started Sleeping Giants on Nov. 16, 2016, with a Twitter account. In its first two weeks of operation, the account quickly amassed more than 1,000 followers and successfully pressured six brands to stop advertising on Breitbart, he said.
Jammi, who lives in the Washington, DC, area, had the same idea later that month, arguing on Twitter that Old Navy should stop advertising on Breitbart. (It was the first ad she saw when she went to the site.) Rivitz messaged Jammi after reading a post she published on Medium on Nov. 24 in which she laid out her case, and the two began talking about a collaboration.
They soon developed a rough division of labor. Rivitz ran the Twitter account, which today has nearly 300,000 followers, and Jammi the smaller Facebook page, which today has more than 71,000. Along with a small group of volunteers, they began notching victories, pressuring major advertisers from Audi to Zillow to add Breitbart to their advertising blacklists. In April 2019, Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of the site, said Breitbart’s ad revenues fell 90% as a result of the campaign.
Jammi and Rivitz worked together, but also took the lead on different projects, both said. Jammi led a campaign targeting Robert Mercer, the former co-chief executive of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and also pressured Stripe, PayPal, and other platforms to stop processing payments for far-right activists and groups. She also pushed for Bank of America to stop doing business with private prisons, among other campaigns.
Rivitz vetted and organized international chapters of Sleeping Giants, set up driving billboards around Amazon and Facebook campuses to pressure them to sever ties with Breitbart News, campaigned against YouTube and Facebook giving a platform to Infowars’ Alex Jones, and set up and ran the e-commerce store among other projects.
On July 16, 2018, conservative news site the Daily Caller outed Rivitz as what it called the group’s founder: "Sleeping Giants was founded by Matt Rivitz, an award-winning ad copywriter based in San Francisco, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found," the site wrote.
Two days later, the New York Times presented a different account. In a profile titled, in the plural, "Revealed: The People Behind an Anti-Breitbart Twitter Account," the paper described Rivitz as having been "identified as the account’s creator,” and that he "runs the account with Nandini Jammi, 29, a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant, along with other still anonymous contributors."
"Shortly after Mr. Rivitz started the account, it caught the attention of Ms. Jammi, an American who lives in Berlin," the New York Times wrote.
Jammi said she had asked Sapna Maheshwari, the Times reporter writing the profile, to call her a cofounder, but that Rivitz overruled her, telling Jammi that she would be interviewed as a “member of Sleeping Giants,” according to Twitter direct messages that Jammi shared with BuzzFeed News.
“Given that we never discussed her title previously, I was definitely surprised to hear that she had named herself cofounder,” Rivitz said. “As I did not believe that was her role, having come on after I had already established the campaign, I corrected the record according to this belief.”
In the end, the article ran without specifying a title for either Rivitz or Jammi. (Maheshwari, who previously worked as a reporter at BuzzFeed News, declined to comment.)
For Jammi it was the first signal that their relationship might not have a happy future.
In August 2018, Jammi told Rivitz she was worried about being “sidelined.”
“Having a title represents opportunities — to write, speak and be invited to the table to contribute to a discussion we have both been helping to shape ... I’ve been working with you on this from the start and I imagined that we were partners on the project,” Jammi wrote in an email to him on Aug. 12. “However, I’m starting to feel wary of being sidelined. I’m wary that this above ambiguity could keep me from realizing my ambitions and the impact I want to have as a pro marketer/WOC in my space.”
“Jesus. I feel horrible about this and had no idea, but I’m glad you reached out and let’s talk about roles and titles and all of that stuff,” Rivitz wrote in response. “As you said, we’ve never talked about it and it’s time now that everything is out in the open. You deserve a ton of credit for all of this and you’ll get it. Promise.”
Rivitz said he later told her that although he was the founder, “Sleeping Giants is a flat organization,” and that she could choose her title.
They initially agreed she’d be called “founding organizer.”
More than a year later, after Jammi and Rivitz had privately fallen out, she began publicly calling herself a cofounder, including on her LinkedIn and Twitter pages, because she felt it was the only way to remain visible.
But whatever her exact title, a number of people who worked with Sleeping Giants told BuzzFeed News they thought Jammi was one of the organization's leaders, if not a founder in her own right.
“I would consider them both founders.”
“I would consider them both founders,” EJ Gibney, a researcher who has volunteered on and off for Sleeping Giants since December 2016, told BuzzFeed News. “To my knowledge, they have both been involved since the very beginning.”
Gibney added that he had never seen Jammi have to seek approval for an idea from Rivitz. Both people, he said, appeared to hold the same level of responsibility.
But Britton Taylor, another early volunteer, thought Rivitz had a better claim to the title of founder, even though, he said, “I know for a fact that [Jammi] has done a shit ton of work … and she’s been instrumental to the success of the organization.”
“When I think of a term like founder, even that is a little murky for me,” Taylor added. “If you have a startup, there's a document that says you own shares in the company. But because this is decentralized, because it started anonymously, because there's a bunch of people involved, there's no such contract.”
Others disagreed. One longtime volunteer and friend of Rivitz’s, who goes by the online handle Barret Williams, told BuzzFeed News they saw Rivitz as the sole founder.
Regardless of her title, Jammi was a major part of the organization.
Jammi's unhappiness came to a head in June 2019, when Sleeping Giants was shortlisted for an award from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France. Rivitz did not tell her he had entered Sleeping Giants into the competition or invite her to go with him. She found out by noticing pictures of the south of France on his Instagram.
Sleeping Giants ended up winning the award.
“People started reaching out to me, congratulating me, asking me why I was not there,” Jammi said. “I didn’t even have the opportunity to go.”
“It was the worst week of my adult life,” said Jammi. “I stopped eating, I couldn’t even function. I mean, Sleeping Giants is my entire life. I have spent every day on this. It’s my second job, I have put in tireless amounts of effort — as much as he has at least.”
Jammi was at a loss, wondering why she had never been informed about the trip. Rivitz said he mainly traveled to Cannes on his own dime for a speaking engagement and never expected Sleeping Giants to be shortlisted, much less win. “Cannes does not pay for travel for any nominees or winners of awards,” he said.
A few days later, Jammi tweeted about the experience, along with her headshot and an offer to do public speaking.
“Hey guys, I co-run @slpng_giants with Matt. Sadly I could not join him at #CannesLions last week to pick up our award,” she wrote. “WoC are rarely seen or heard in tech and marketing, but we deserve a seat at the table too.”
Jammi also commented sarcastically on Rivitz’s Instagram page, “Incredible how much you’ve achieved all by yourself!”
After the posts, Rivitz called her to reprimand her for airing their private grievances in public, Jammi said. She said Rivitz accused her of wanting to hog the spotlight and being involved in Sleeping Giants for the wrong reasons.
“I asked her repeatedly what she wanted out of this campaign, as the attacks against me [on social media] were ongoing,” Rivitz said. “I asked Nandini if she was in this for personal reasons rather than the mission itself.”
Jammi took the call while she was visiting Laura Calabrese, a close friend who lives in New York. Calabrese told BuzzFeed News she overheard Jammi’s side of the call in her living room.
After the call, Jammi looked stunned, Calabrese said.
“She was clearly defending herself against some accusation that she wasn’t in this for the right reasons,” said Calabrese. “I heard her say she wanted a seat at the table and wanted to make connections so she could keep doing the work she was doing more effectively.
“I definitely remember she said he accused her of being in it for the glory.”
Since their fight last June, Jammi and Rivitz have communicated only sporadically. Jammi had doubts about breaking from Rivitz formally, thinking that the work of Sleeping Giants was more important than her personal struggles.
"It became clear that we had an expanding gulf of trust."
The relationship further soured because Rivitz declined to give Jammi access to the organization’s official email inbox, which she said would have helped her see speaking opportunities and media requests that were related to Sleeping Giants' work, but came only to Rivitz. Jammi felt that not being able to use a Sleeping Giants email address made her seem less official.
Jammi said she asked for access to the inbox repeatedly over months. Rivitz said that in one instance he refused to give her the password after a thread she tweeted on Dec. 8, 2019, in which she wrote, “I let myself be gaslighted by a progressive male activist who made me question my worth and the value I bring to our movement.”
Rivitz thought it was obvious who she meant.
“It became clear that we had an expanding gulf of trust after Nandini’s public attacks on me on social media,” Rivitz said. “Right or wrong, this resulted in my reluctance to share the email account password.”
The two temporarily reconciled in January, during a phone call in which Rivitz said he apologized for their argument.
But the gulf between them proved too much, leading to the final rupture.
Jammi said she now plans to work on new campaigns related to Facebook and Fox News with other activist groups.
But she wants to make clear the contributions she made to Sleeping Giants.
“I don’t want Matt being the one to tell my story to the world,” Jammi said. “I’m not a helper. I’m not an assistant. I’m not an optional part of the story. Sleeping Giants wouldn’t be what it is today without me.” ●Jul 9, 2020, 4:51:45 PM GMT
This story has been updated to clarify Jammi's contribution to the creation of Sleeping Giants, as well as her title and email account access.
Nandini Jammi published a post on Medium on July 9 on why she left Sleeping Giants and "why taking credit matters and why you must fight for yourself as hard as you do for your cause."
Megha Rajagopalan is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in the Middle East.
Contact Megha Rajagopalan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.