Stop Funding Hate is a campaign urging big brands to pull their advertising from newspapers accused of demonizing minorities. After two years of successful growth and noteworthy impact, co-founder and director Richard Wilson shares his thoughts with us…

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How did the idea for this campaign come about?

For decades, elements of the UK press have been running stories that demonize migrants, refugees, Muslims and other minority groups. Often these stories are highly inaccurate – and in some cases they have been wholly false. Experts have warned that the hate in our media has fuelled hate crime incidents on our streets.

While this problem has been going on for a long time, in recent years it has got more and more extreme. The situation has now become so bad that three UK newspapers – the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express – have been called out by the UN over their coverage.

For decades, elements of the UK press have been running stories that demonise migrants, refugees, Muslims and other minority groups.

In 2015, after the Sun ran a story comparing African migrants to “cockroaches”, the UN put out a statement warning that:

“History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities, and 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.”

Yet over the following year we saw more and more anti-migrant stories.

Hate is part of the business model: Part of the reason that newspapers run these negative – and often inaccurate – stories about migrants and Muslims is that these stories sell papers, and this in turn boosts their advertising revenue.

But if brands can be persuaded to switch their advertising away from publications that incite hatred and towards those many outlets that report accurately and fairly, this could fundamentally change that business model. It could disincentivise the hate, and reward decent, good quality journalism.

SFH has seen a lot of press coverage, how did you go about promoting the campaign at the start?

This campaign has grown organically through social media. We launched on Facebook in August last year and within a short time we had over 50,000 Facebook followers. That’s now grown to over 230,000. We had some initial media coverage early on but the first big breakthrough for the campaign was in November, when Lego announced that they had ended their promotional partnership with the Daily Mail. Again this story initially “broke” on social media but was then picked up by the established press, both in the UK and around the world.

Hate is part of the business model. But if brands can be persuaded to switch their advertising away from these types of publications this could fundamentally change that business model.

SFH is prolific on social media, but has it inspired any offline action?

We’ve been both online and offline from the outset. Obviously social media allows you to reach large numbers of people quickly, but from early on we’ve also organised meet-ups, had face-to-face meetings, and engaged in person with the media. Just before the New Year hundreds of our supporters sent Christmas cards to the Co-op Members’ Council, and more recently have written letters to members of the Co-op Board.

Our partners from Citizens UK and Stand Up Stand Out organised a “Be Like Lego” campaign action on Oxford Street in December, and on Valentine’s Day they visited the HQ of the Body Shop to urge them to choose love over hate and end their partnership with the Daily Mail – while Stop Funding Hate supporters backed up their action via social media.

For us it’s less important whether a particular campaigning activity is online or offline – the key thing is to use methods that are effective, and which complement each other.

On a more global scale, the #StopFundingHate slogan has been picked up and used by other advertiser campaigns around the world, most notably the US-based campaign Sleeping Giants, which is calling on companies to remove their ads from the controversial website Breitbart. Perhaps the most spectacular offline manifestation of this so far was when – reportedly – somebody chartered a plane to fly over the Amazon AGM in Seattle pulling a banner saying “Amazon Stop Funding Hate. Drop Breitbart”.

But for us it’s less important whether a particular campaigning activity is online or offline – the key thing is to use methods that are effective, and which complement each other.

What do you say to those who might accuse you of attacking free speech, or freedom of the press?

I’d suggest that this is a fundamental misrepresentation of the nature of freedom of speech.

For decades, elements of the UK press have been running stories that demonise migrants, refugees, Muslims and other minority groups.

I worked for Amnesty International for over 7 years. During that time I met people who’d been jailed, tortured or beaten up for exercising their right to free speech. I would argue that seeking to characterise advertising revenue as a free speech issue, in order to defend the business interests of newspapers that incite hatred against minority groups, is not only fundamentally misguided: It also does a disservice to the many genuine defenders of free speech who are putting their lives on the line around the world to uphold this basic freedom.

Voltaire never said “I will defend to the death your right to get advertising revenue”.

Newspaper editors have a right to print whatever they like within the law – but the public also has a right to say “not with my money”.

Voltaire never said “I will defend to the death your right to get advertising revenue”. And if a company is concerned that their association with a particular newspaper is damaging their brand, and chooses to switch their advertising to a different publication as a result, then nobody’s rights have been abused – that’s simply a business decision.

It’s also important to be clear that freedom of speech is not the exclusive preserve of powerful newspaper editors. We have to defend the principle that the general public have a right to speak out too. And if customers of Lego, the Body Shop or Vodafone are unhappy that the company they shop with is subsidising media organisations, through their advertising, that demonise minority groups, then those customers have a right to say so. To suggest otherwise is to seek to deny the public their right to freedom of expression.

What success stories has SFH enjoyed so far?

Our first big success was the decision by Lego to rethink its relationship with the Daily Mail. Subsequently the Body Shop made the same call after the Valentine’s Day campaign action by our friends from Citizens UK and Stand Up Stand Out. Others we know about publicly are Thread, Bellroy and Eurowings. We’re also aware of a number of other brands who have quietly made changes to their advertising plans behind the scene.

Finally, DiP is about inspiring and empowering people in the creative industries to make social change. What advice would you give to aspiring activists who want to use their skills for good?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re powerless. The key thing is to think about where your influence lies – and how you can most effectively use that influence to make a difference. That may be about using your influence within your job – or by using the power that you have as a consumer.

What I learned from working at Amnesty is that even in the most extreme situations there will often be something positive that we can do.

The key thing is to think about where your influence lies – and how you can most effectively use that influence to make a difference.

However we will usually be doing this in a situation of uncertainty – and success can sometimes come from an unexpected direction. We saw this at Stop Funding Hate with the positive result from Lego: We had engaged with them through Twitter – and we’d shared a very powerful message that one of our supporters had left on the Lego Facebook page. But this was just one of a number of different things we were doing at the time – and our main focus at that point was actually on John Lewis. We weren’t necessarily expecting Lego to respond in the way that they did.

So it’s important to have a clear goal and “theory of change”, grounded in a hard-nosed assessment of what’s likely to work. But it can also be valuable to test out a range of different tactics for achieving that goal, and try not to make too many assumptions in advance. Alongside the old-fashioned-but-arguably-much-needed concept of “civility”, one of the qualities that I think is (ironically) much under-rated in campaigning is that of “intellectual humility”.

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