Screenshot activists are reaching out to advertisers, pointing out ads which are right next to hateful commentary, fake news, and open bigotry. The primary target right now is Breitbart. So far the activism has been effective, but as with all activism, this could be, and needs to be, a much larger effort.
One day in late November, an earth and environmental science professor named Nathan Phillips visited Breitbart News for the first time. Mr. Phillips had heard about the hateful headlines on the site — like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” — and wondered what kind of companies would support such messages with their ad dollars. When he clicked on the site, he was shocked to discover ads for universities, including one for the graduate school where he’d received his own degree — Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “That was a punch in the stomach,” he said.
Why would an environmental science program want to be promoted on a site that denies the existence of climate change? Mr. Phillips figured — correctly — that Duke officials did not know where their ads were appearing, so he sent a tweet to Duke about its association with the “sexist racist” site. Eventually, after a flurry of communication with the environment department, he received a satisfying resolution — an assurance that its ads would no longer show up on Breitbart.
Mr. Phillips had just engaged in a new form of consumer activism, one that is rewriting the rules of online advertising. In the past month and a half, thousands of activists have started to push companies to take a stand on what you might call “hate news” — a toxic mix of lies, white-supremacist content and bullying that can inspire attacks on Muslims, gay people, women, African-Americans and others.
In mid-November, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants became the hub of the new movement. The Giants and their followers have communicated with more than 1,000 companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appeared on Breitbart, and about 400 of those organizations have promised to remove the site from future ad buys.
But when I reached out to several organizations that seemed to have joined the ban, they didn’t want to talk about it. A bank and a nonprofit group did not respond to my queries. Two companies — 3M and Zappos — declined to talk about the matter. A Patagonia spokeswoman said that her company did not advertise on white-supremacist sites — but she would not comment on the screenshots that activists had sent to Patagonia in early December showing the company’s logo on Breitbart’s Facebook page. Warby Parker was the most forthcoming; a representative pointed me to a statement that thanked a Twitter activist for inspiring its own ban on Breitbart.
In the behavior of some of these companies, you can detect the way our norms have already shifted. In the old normal, it would have cost little to stand up against neo-Nazi slogans. But in the new normal, doing so might involve angering key players in the White House, including the president-elect, Donald J. Trump, who has hired the former editor of Breitbart as his senior adviser. Mr. Trump recently proved the damage he could do to a company by criticizing Lockheed Martin on Twitter; soon after, its stocks prices tumbled.
Still, a new consumer movement is rising, and activists believe that where votes failed, wallets may prevail. This struggle is about much more than ads on Breitbart News — it’s about using corporations as shields to protect vulnerable people from bullying and hate crimes.
Nicholas Reville, a board member of the Participatory Culture Foundation who has worked with the Sleeping Giants, pointed out that businesses benefited from embracing diversity: “You have to be inclusionary if you’re going to try to sell to a very large audience.” And he pointed out that consumer activism might be especially effective because so many people feel they have no other way to express their opposition to Trump-ian values.
The founder of Sleeping Giants agreed. “It’s scary to say it, but maybe companies will have to be the standard-bearers for morals right now,” he said. He added that most corporations embrace policies (on paper at least) that prohibit racist bullying and sexual intimidation. Even if President Trump flouts these rules, corporations may continue to uphold them. “We’ve all seen employee handbooks where they have codes of behavior,” he said. “Maybe that’s all we have to fall back on now.”
— The Anti-Trump (@IMPL0RABLE) January 8, 2017