An advertising boycott is attacking the finances of fake-news sites. Major brands are pulling out, and panic is spreading among the propagandists whose work has fed the Corbyn movement, Tommy Robinson and the new-look Islamophobic Ukip.
The Stop Funding Fake News Campaign is targeting the far left and far right in equal measure. It says, correctly in my view, that the similarities between the extremes are far more striking than the differences. The sites they target share three characteristics: they do not produce original reporting; they are happy to inflame the prejudices of their readers; and they share a disregard for truth and contempt for democratic institutions that fits too easily with our Trumpian times. The campaign is targeting a business model that is the alt-left and alt-right’s strength and weakness. Companies and institutions do not necessarily know where their advertising is going. They tell Google AdWords and other brokers they want to reach so many people – broken down by age, class, location, and so on – and are billed when the ads are delivered. What can be easily given can be easily taken away. A firm need only sign into its AdWorks account, navigate to ‘campaign placements exclusions’ and add the web address of the Canary or Westmonster to bar them.
The campaign only began two-weeks ago. But it has already persuaded Ted Baker and Moonpig to pull ads. Manchester United and the consumer credit company Experian may follow. The next target will be government departments that are giving taxpayers’ money to extremists and their mouthpieces without appearing to know they are doing it. The campaign has tracked ads from the Department of Work and Pensions, Defra, Network Rail and the Financial Conduct Authority as part of its investigation into the financing of Rebel Media, Politicalite, and Westmonster on the extreme right and the Canary and Evolve Politics on the extreme left
Companies are moving with alacrity to protect their reputation. At 8am on Tuesday the campaign tweeted Unibet ‘your adverts are appearing on Politicalite, a virulently Islamophobic fake news site’. Within two hours, Unibet had cancelled its spend.
Meanwhile, and despite the Canary's pose as a brave speaker of truth, it removed the articles Stop Funding Fake News had highlighted and sent legal letters warning the campaign to stop. (The activists’ legal advisers said they could be safely binned.) Last week, Nancy W. Mendoza, the Canary’s director of comms, contacted the website Monday.com, to highlight the Canary’s ‘values, processes, and business model’ after Stop Funding Fake News called on the business to take its marketing budget elsewhere. The Canary itself took to Twitter to tell the consumer group Which? that if it had ‘any concerns about our journalism,’ to take them to the government approved press regulator Impress rather than listen to the campaign.
Meanwhile the Canary’s comrades at Evolve Politics accused the campaign on Monday of making ‘entirely false and therefore libellous’ accusations, a claim which suggested that it, too, was feeling the heat.
The symmetry between the two sides is shown in their indulgence of racial prejudices and conspiracy theory. On the Corbyn wing, the Canary implied the Israeli government was organising a boycott of Arab shops (it isn’t) as the Nazi state organised a boycott of Jewish shops in the 1930s – propaganda that carries with it the assumption it was on the same trajectory to genocide and Israeli Jews are today’s Nazis. (It has since taken down the piece, but you can see it on the Stop Funding Fake News website.) Meanwhile, Evolve Politics did its bit for Putin’s disinformation campaign when it suggested the Russian chemical attack on Salisbury was not a Russian attack. ‘The Russian state seems to be low on the list of potential suspects’, it declared with breezy confidence, and ‘Theresa May’s argument that the use of Novichok immediately indicts the Kremlin is patently false.’ The piece continued, perhaps inevitably, with the dark observation that Israel 'has major stocks of chemical weapons’.
Admire, if you can, the bragging implicit in that ‘what the government isn’t telling you…’ line. It flatters the reader and allows the propagandists to bask in self-aggrandisement. The common people in their naivety and stupidity believe the official account. But you and me, the wised-up sceptics know not to go along with the government, even though in this instance they were going along with the Russian government.
On the far right, the Muslims replace the Jews, but the switch is merely a shift in emphasis. The far left says that Jews have the power to shape the policy of the government and the BBC: 'the BBC just declared that FIVE children being murdered by Israel is NOT A LOT' said Evolve Politics . (To get to that conclusion it had to twist a BBC ruling on bias so hard it was a wonder it didn’t break in its hands.) Meanwhile, the far-right site Politicate runs stories designed to incite an equally paranoid fear of Muslims: 'THE INVASION: Mosque Tells Muslim Migrants 'Breed To Conquer Europe'' said one. Rebel Media and Westmonster add to the paranoid mix by promoting Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage’s Soros conspiracy theories.
Politicalite, incidentally, announces to its readers that ‘Alt-News is under attack’. And for once it is telling it like it is. The campaign tells advertisers: ‘The truth is that most of the clicks generated for these sites are for the worst of their output. Adverts are being served up alongside conspiracies, illiberalism, lies, racism and misogyny, which sadly is what generates most controversy. That's not good for your brand which will be associated with those negative sentiments in readers' minds.’ The campaign’s rapid success suggests that many companies agree.
I have always been wary of advertising boycotts, as I have seen corporations use them to threaten papers running exposes of their businesses. I must confess to remaining wary. But in this case I can see three arguments in their favour. The alt-news sites are not producing investigative journalism or any kind of journalism. Their sole source of income is advertisers chasing clicks, and they can hardly complain when advertisers say they don’t want to race to the bottom anymore. If those two points don’t convince you, consider a third. In the manifesto he left before went to a New Zealand mosque to slaughter worshippers, Brenton Tarrant asked himself: ‘From where did you receive / research / develop your beliefs?’ He replied: ‘The internet, of course. You will not find the truth anywhere else.’