Online activists hit hatemongers like Alex Jones where it hurts the most — in the wallet


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Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Matt Rivitz stumbled upon the Breitbart News website… 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 SF 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…

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 & 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 same techniques to put pressure on advertisers on Bill O’Reilly’s show, after the Fox News superstar had been credibly charged with sexual harassment (& 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, Fla., shooting in a scathing tweet…

As recently as last week, Ingraham still was spouting barely disguised racism: “The America we know & love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, & they are changes that none of us ever voted for, & most of us don’t like . . . this is related to both illegal & legal immigration.”

And for months, Rivitz (& about 10 others who volunteer with him…) have been trying to do something about Alex Jones, whose online presence — hosted by FB, Spotify, YouTube & 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. While Rivitz, a freelance copywriter for ad agencies…, is not going so far as to say that Sleeping Giants is responsible for Jones’s being kicked off the platforms, he has reason to think it was a factor.
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Just days before Apple banned Jones for hate speech (setting off the domino effect for other platforms), Rivitz said, “a few members of our community tweeted at two podcasting apps, Stitcher & OvercastFM, to ask them why they still carried Jones.”

Representatives of the apps explained that they were following Apple’s lead, but they both ended up banning Jones on their own. With this as leverage, Sleeping Giants then asked Apple why it was not enforcing its own guidelines for acceptable content. “We… didn’t hear back, but two days later, Apple banned him,” Rivitz said.

The whole 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 & 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…

Rivitz notes that Sleeping Giants has never called for a boycott. It has merely… 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 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 & hate-mongering — count me in this number — their efforts seem worthwhile… Media companies like Fox & sewer-dwellers like Jones need their feet held to the fire in a way that matters. Money talks — & 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… In an era where bad faith rules the day in so many realms, the techniques used by Sleeping Giants are both powerful & potentially dangerous. And because they obviously work, they are here to stay.


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