Stop Funding Hate and the changing face of online protest
Not too many people have heard of the American post-apocalyptic television drama, Jericho. It premiered in the US on 20 September 2006, and while it’s an excellent show, it was most notable for what happened when it was cancelled.
After poor ratings for the first season, CBS pulled the plug, igniting one of the most effective campaigns in history. Fans – rallying around the savingjericho.com website – were urged to send shipments of nuts (a reference to the TV show) to the offices of CBS.
As then-president of the network, Nina Tassler, noted, “you got our attention”. She reversed the decision to cancel the show, ordered seven more episodes, and added in a PS, “please stop sending us nuts”.
It was a short-lived victory for one of the first online protests to harness social media in its campaigning. Inevitably, the second series bombed, and no amount of nuts could persuade CBS to bring it back again.
What happened with Jericho, though, was just a foretaste of the power of online campaigns driven by social media. Ten years on, we have more powerful campaigns that aim to change lives. And among the best, so far, has been Stop Funding Hate (found at @stopfundinghate).
Richard Wilson, one of the founders of Stop Funding Hate, told us about its origins. When he was a teenager in the 1990s, “my mum used to teach English to refugees from Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia. I remember how hurtful she found it to compare the real experiences of the students in her class – and the traumas they had suffered – with the negative and distorted portrayal of refugees and asylum seekers by the Daily Mail.”
(Above: A collection of newspaper front pages, from Stop Funding Hate’s Facebook group)
Wilson was constantly aware that the UK tabloid press, in particular, has continued to portray immigrants and asylum seekers in a negative light. But the turning point for him was a statement from Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued in 2015, which condemned the “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion”.
Wilson decided to do something about it, but it took some time to gain traction. “As of early August, we were just a tiny group of volunteers,” he said, “with a small 38 Degrees petition, having a discussion on Facebook.” But with the launch of the group’s first video, the Facebook likes started to pour in. Social media was the fuel for what happened next.
“I’d never seen a campaign idea spread so quickly”
“I’ve been involved in human-rights campaigning for 15 years – including seven years at Amnesty International – but I’d never seen a campaign idea spread so quickly,” Wilson said.
Stop Funding Hate campaigns ask people to target advertisers of publications that many feel are spreading messages of intolerance. The tone is interesting, too, because people are being asked to request these companies, politely, to spend their advertising pounds elsewhere. It didn’t take long to score a strike.
On 12 November 2016, the campaign was at least partly responsible for a change in policy from Lego. The @StopFundingHate Twitter account amplified a request from a parent for Lego to stop promotional activity with the Daily Mail – and Lego replied, revealing it was “not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper”.
More than 40,000 retweets later the story had become national news, with media-industry trade paper Press Gazette running a worried op-ed, asking “what right do a few hundred, or a few thousand, people on social media who don’t read the Daily Mail have to dictate the type coverage read by several million people a day who do read the paper?”
In America, the mantle has been quickly taken up by the Sleeping Giants campaign. Via its Twitter account, it declares it’s trying “to stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars”.
Its core target right now is the notorious “alt-right” outlet, Breitbart. A big victory was quickly scored, too, with Kellogg’s pulling its advertising, noting that the site was not “aligned with our values”. Breitbart, extraordinarily, then itself called for a boycott of Kellogg’s, with an attempt to get the #BoycottKelloggs hashtag trending. That move, in turn, may be scaring advertisers away. As CBS noted, “attacking a major advertiser isn’t likely to make the site more appealing to other brands”.
The 2016 effect
One of the things Breitbart got wrong was the confrontational tone of its campaign. The most effective protests, it seems, strive for politeness.
“If we’re serious about tackling this ‘culture of hate’, then surely the first rule has to be: Don’t participate in it.”
This is deliberate. “At a time when so much online debate is so angry, hostile and hate-fuelled, we think it’s vital that we avoid feeding that culture and set a different tone,” Richard Wilson says. “A lot of people are very angry towards the media and want to direct that rage at newspapers and individual newspaper columnists. But we think it’s much more powerful to try to refocus this energy and engage in a friendly and positive way. If we’re serious about tackling this ‘culture of hate’, then surely the first rule has to be: Don’t participate in it.”
Results so far suggest he’s onto something. Whether this fuels a longer-term change in advertising policy from big brands, who are being directly asked by their customers to engage in editorial decisions indirectly – itself not without consequence – remains to be seen.