Online activists hit hatemongers like Alex Jones where it hurts the most - in the wallet
Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Matt Rivitz stumbled upon the Breitbart News website, which once called itself the "home of the alt-right." He was appalled by what he saw, including stories tagged "black crime." He wanted to do something about what he viewed as obvious racism. And as someone who had spent two decades in the advertising industry, he knew just how.
So, working anonymously, the San Francisco resident founded Sleeping Giants.
The name may sound daunting, but at first it was little more than a Twitter account that publicly notified companies when their ads appeared on Breitbart, asking if they really wanted to support the content there. Hundreds of them eventually decided to pull their ads from the site.
"I've seen it as a service to advertisers − we're calling on them to have a conscience," Rivitz, 45, told me last week in one of his first interviews since the conservative Daily Caller "unmasked" his identity last month.
A Breitbart story, touting the revelation of Rivitz's identity, described Sleeping Giants as "the anonymous leftist group that organizes social media mobs in an effort to silence conservative voices."
Rivitz sees it quite differently. Many companies, because of the nature of how digital ads are bought and placed, are unaware that they are supporting sites − or media personalities − whose far-right or bigoted views don't mesh with their corporate values. Sleeping Giants used the techniques to put pressure on advertisers on Bill O'Reilly's show, after the Fox News superstar had been credibly charged with sexual harassment (and had secretly settled a claim from a network contributor for $32 million).
Advertisers deserted the show. O'Reilly no longer works at Fox. Similarly, it alerted advertisers about their presence on Laura Ingraham's show after she mocked one of the teenage survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting in a scathing tweet. She returned after a hiatus.
As recently as last week, Ingraham still was spouting barely disguised racism: "The America we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like ... this is related to both illegal and legal immigration."
And for months, Rivitz (and about 10 others who volunteer with him at Sleeping Giants) have been trying to do something about Alex Jones, whose online presence − hosted by Facebook, Spotify, YouTube and others − has spread conspiracy theories that have plagued the parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre.
Last week, many of the platforms finally dumped Jones.
"We've been tweeting at every platform for about a year," Rivitz told me, pointing out how Jones was violating the clearly stated "terms of service" of the various platforms which typically forbid harassment.
The process of applying concerted social-media pressure raises profound questions. What happens when these same techniques are used not to point out bigotry but to go after legitimate comment or personalities by twisting the facts?
"For better and worse, online activists have shown just how easily the digital economy allows agitators to make web publishers feel their pain," wrote Osita Nwanevu in Slate, comparing Sleeping Giants to an effort all the way across the political spectrum − the Gamergate movement's successful targeting of Gawker's advertisers in 2014 as they made the hypocritical case to advertisers that Gawker supported bullying.
Rivitz notes that Sleeping Giants has never called for a boycott. It has merely − but insistently −pointed out to companies that they are advertising in places that may not be compatible with their corporate image.
(Amazon, whose founder, Jeffrey Bezos, owns The Washington Post, is one company that hasn't changed its advertising in response, despite many efforts by Sleeping Giants.)
To those who sympathize with Sleeping Giants' objections to online racism, sexism and hate-mongering − count me in this number − their efforts seem worthwhile, sometimes even noble. Media companies like Fox and sewer-dwellers like Jones need their feet held to the fire in a way that matters. Money talks and the loss of money absolutely shouts.
But it's not hard to imagine similar techniques being used in ways that hurt media organizations or personalities who have done nothing worse than be provocative, as was the case with Gawker.
In an era where bad faith rules the day in so many realms, the techniques used by Sleeping Giants are both powerful and potentially dangerous. And because they obviously work, they are here to stay.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.
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