Media Continues Campaign of Attacks on Stop Funding Hate

The Times reports:

They claim to be taking on hatred by persuading companies to pull advertisements from certain newspapers, but online posts by supporters of the Stop Funding Hate campaign betray the venom it attracts.

…Among those who post regularly about the campaign is one who tweets under the name @westlake1972. He repeatedly calls anyone he deems to be right-wing a “c***”, using the insult against Nick Robinson and John Humphrys, the Radio 4 Today hosts, and Jonathan Dimbleby, the television presenter. Another regular supporter, @speedyned, ruminates whether to “kill” his or her in-laws for reading “Mail and Express” and Gary Cook called Mr [Boris] Johnson a “horrible, vile, f***ing racist C***” for saying that Barack Obama was a “part-Kenyan president”.

Stop Funding Hate highlights examples of what it considers to be hateful rhetoric in newspapers, and asks supporters to politely raise their concerns with advertisers. In recent weeks the stationery store Paperchase and Pizza Hut have both apologised for running promotions with the Daily Mail and the Sun.

@westlake1972 has 788 followers on Twitter, and no public profile; @speedyned appears to have deleted his Tweets and purged all his followers, but there is no residual evidence that he or she ever interacted with anyone else. I have not been able to trace Gary Cook, so cannot confirm whether his objection to Johnson was indeed because Johnson had referred to Obama’s ancestry, or because Johnson had inferred from this that Obama must be anti-British. @westlake1972 frequently uses “Tory cunt” as an insult, but his vagina monologues also include Jeremy Corbyn (“I think Corbyn is a cunt”) and Tony Benn (“narcissistic cunt”).

The trollish trio unearthed by The Times and thus now preserved in the UK’s paper of record are presented as evidence – to quote the headline – of the “Online Venom of Campaigners against Hatred”. The headline at least agrees that the campaign’s target is indeed “hatred”, although this implication was probably unintentional.

The Times article is just the latest media attack on Stop Funding Hate: two weeks ago, the Daily Mail‘s hatchet man Guy Adams wrote a two-page spread in which he trawled through Tweets by people who had RTed Stop Funding Hate, and like The Times today he found a few “gotchas” – I wrote about this at the time. Then, a few days ago, the Foreign Secretary put his name to a Sun op-ed complaining that the campaign is attacking “the very basis of our democracy”.

However, despite Boris Johnson’s fulminations, there was no explanation as to why exactly, if I have a choice between spending my money with Business A, which has a connection with an enterprise that does not accord with my values, and spending it with Business B, which does not have such a connection, I should not prefer the latter. As Jo Maugham put it: “Denying an editorial line has commercial consequences is like denying gravity exists. And arguing about whether this fact is desirable is like arguing whether the fact of gravity is desirable.”

The Times article also claims that “scores of other [Stop Funding Hate] supporters have used often violent imagery”, but there is no systematic analysis and the term “scores” is vague. Presumably “scores” signifies that there are not so many that we can say say “hundreds” – which is of some significance given that the campaign has 84,400 followers on Twitter and 240,000 on Facebook. Thousands of supporters who have not expressed “online venom” is of course a non-story.

The article continues:

After Sarah Baxter, deputy editor of The Sunday Times, challenged [Stop Funding Hate’s Richard Wilson] on Newsnight, she claimed she was attacked on Twitter by his supporters, who called her “vermin”.

I could find just one example of this – and once again, it is from @westlake1972. There are, though, plenty of abusive comments about Stop Funding Hate, as the article acknowledges in passing:

Inevitably on the internet, trolls take on trolls, and many opposing the Stop Funding Hate campaign have attacked its supporters with reams of racist tweets.

This is a token attempt to be even-handed, but the approach is not comparable. Stop Funding Hate is apparently discredited because some specific people who support its aims have a history of online incivility; yet tabloid supporters abusing the campaign are simply the manifestation of a culture of trolling and are not of any broader significance.

The article also blends in some commentary:

However, the volume of Stop Funding Hate critics on social media suggests that Paperchase and Pizza Hut did not make savvy business decisions by apologising. For every Stop Funding Hate tweet there are several more who vow to stop buying the products specifically because the company has capitulated to bullying.

Those who have “vow[ed] to stop buying the products” are presumably good consumer activists. However, this barely disguised pitch (warning?) to advertisers is an over-simplification.  It looks to me that Paperchase identified a reputational risk, and decided to act. That risk cannot be calculated simply by totting up numbers on social media – instead, the values of target consumers (and perhaps also of members of staff) have to be taken into account. Advertisers tend to flee association with objectionable content on instinct when it appears that controversy is brewing (as was demonstrated by a case in the summer involving Land Rover and Barbour).

And where exactly was the “bullying”? If Paperchase had been “bullied” into apologising for its promotion with the Daily Mail, the article would surely have displayed abusive comments aimed at the company, instead of random nasty comments from non-entities about media figures.