Ben Cowles discusses the Stop Funding Hate social media campaign with its founder RICHARD WILSON
“DRIP by drip our society is being poisoned with headlines selling hatred,” begins a video by Stop Funding Hate. “Right now the press use fear and division to sell more papers and they don’t care what we think because hate pays.”
Stop Funding Hate is a social media-based grassroots campaign aiming to deter companies like Virgin, Waitrose and Specsavers from inadvertently funding racism by paying for advertisement space in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun. The hope is that the advertisers will see that the hate speech presented in these papers is damaging to society and that they will pull their ads from those publications.
Intrigued by the campaign, I got in touch with Richard Wilson, the campaign’s co-founder, and posed the following questions.
What motivated you to start Stop Funding Hate?
Katie Hopkins’s article in the Sun last year comparing migrants to “cockroaches” was a real wake-up call for me. I’ve met survivors of the Rwandan genocide and have friends from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where similar language was used to incite ethnic killings. I was seeing comments from Congolese friends on Facebook horrified to see this dehumanising language in the UK — a country that they had taken to be safe and stable.
Then the UN put out a statement pointing out that the Sun was using the language of genocide, warning that “history has shown us time and again the dangers of demonising foreigners and minorities [...] It is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used […] simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.”
Research by Liz Gerard has shown that the anti-migrant coverage has actually been intensifying, with the Daily Express and Daily Mail in particular running an increasing number of anti-migrant front pages each year. At the same time community tensions are rising and there are growing divisions in our society. I’m personally quite worried about what will happen if things continue in this direction.
So far, you have aimed the campaign at Virgin, Specsavers and Waitrose. Why have you chosen these companies specifically?
Virgin and Waitrose are companies known for a particular set of values, which many people would say are fundamentally at odds with advertising in newspapers like the Sun, Mail and Express. Specsavers are clearly also a well-loved company, about which people have a lot of positive feelings. Again their association with these very aggressive and divisive newspapers just doesn’t sit right.
Specsavers issued a response after members of the Facebook community expressed their displeasure at one of their advertisements and threatened to boycott the company. How do you feel about the company’s response?
We were amazed by the scale of the public response to the Specsavers ad. We hadn’t originally identified them as a key company to engage with. But when we saw that they had an advert next to an anti-migrant front page headline in the Daily Express, we put a couple of things on social media that a lot of people picked up. We think it’s commendable that Specsavers have responded to public concern over this issue rather than ignoring it. We know that this idea of “ethical advertising” is a new and emerging one, but we hope that Specsavers and other companies will start to factor it into their future marketing plans.
It’s a sad reality that migrant-bashing sells papers. The Sun, Mail and Express are more interested in profit than genuine reportage. But though we may completely disagree with what they say, they can exercise the freedom of expression (as long as it’s not hate speech, of course). Do you think what they print is hate speech?
The UN has stated unequivocally that elements of the British media are engaging in hate speech — and they’ve called on the government to do more to tackle it.
We are fully committed to freedom of expression, not just for newspapers but also for the customers of companies like Virgin, Waitrose and Specsavers who may want to express a view on these companies’ association with the anti-migrant press. We recognise that there are good reasons for treading carefully in the area of government regulation so the UN is actually going further than what we are calling for.
Our campaign is also about freedom of choice. The overwhelming majority of people in the UK don’t buy — and might never buy — the Sun, Daily Mail or Daily Express. Yet it’s currently very difficult to avoid shopping with one company or another that advertises in these newspapers.
Freedom of expression also means that the public has the right to question, criticise and challenge big media outlets like the Sun, Mail and Express. Yet the aggressive behaviour of the press can mute or even silence such criticism.
Obviously the Mail, Express and Sun are the most shameless offenders when it comes to migrant bashing. But the Telegraph and the Times generally also portray migrants in an unfavourable light. Will you focus on them also?
This is a campaign that focuses very specifically on the most extreme cases. We don’t take sides in political debates. This is not about whether people like or dislike a particular newspaper, but rather whether that newspaper is engaging in activities that are causing significant social harm. In this respect the evidence we’ve seen suggests that the Daily Mail, Express and Sun are in a category all of their own.
Of course companies care about the way people (especially their target market) perceive their brand, but if we really want them to change, wouldn’t we have to affect their bottom lines? Is this type of thing what you’re hoping to achieve or is media attention enough?
I think ultimately brand perception does affect the bottom line, otherwise companies wouldn’t invest so much in it.
Alongside that, supporters of the campaign are already making their own individual choices over whether to continue shopping with the companies we are engaging with.
We aren’t telling people what they should or shouldn’t do — and I don’t think we need to, as everyone’s individual circumstances are different. But if enough people get involved in the campaign, we do think it could have a significant impact on the bottom line, alongside those less tangible things like brand perception.
Some might describe campaigns such as yours as mere clicktivism. How would you respond to that? Though social media has great power to rally voices around a cause, does Stop Funding Hate have the momentum to keep going?
I wouldn’t make such a big distinction between online and offline campaigning. Whether it’s a Facebook page, a phone call, or a letter, these are just tools that can be used, more or less effectively, to communicate and organise. The key thing is how well you use those tools.
Whether or not our own campaign succeeds, we think it’s likely that this issue — and the public concern surrounding it — will not go away until we see a significant improvement in the way that the British press behaves towards migrants and other demonised groups.
How do you see things moving forward for the campaign?
We are currently working on a major new campaign focusing on one of the UK’s leading ethical brands, with a new video that we hope to release very soon. We’ve also got some big plans for the Christmas period, which is obviously the “peak” advertising season for many companies.
The campaign keeps on growing and gaining new supporters — from faith groups and academic experts to people who work within the media and are horrified by the way things have been going. Our biggest challenge is staying on top of all of the excellent ideas and offers of help that keep coming in.
Ben Cowles is the deputy features editor for the Morning Star. His twitter handle is @Cowlesz