"The reason you got those headlines in 2016 – and why you still see it on the internet all the time – is because hate sells," says Richard Wilson, co-founder of the campaign group Stop Funding Hate. "The question is: how can you get into the business model that makes hate profitable and change it?'
The headlines Richard is referring to were published during a particularly toxic time in the British right-wing tabloid press. Arguably peaking with a 2015 Katie Hopkins column in The Sun calling migrants "cockroaches" – which featured the line "show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water […] I still don't care" – it was articles about migrants and minorities from newspapers including The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express, and a subsequent spike in hate crime, which inspired the formation of Stop Funding Hate.
"For us, it was like, 'What's it going to take to try and get a more healthy public debate around these issues?" he says. "That was where we hit upon the idea of engaging with advertisers."
It was a powerful strategy: build a large, active social media following, highlight extreme examples of hatred in newspapers and online (in the same outlets called out by the UN Human Rights Chief), see who advertises in those outlets and, with the help of the social media followers, politely encourage them to reconsider their association with media brands promoting such extreme views.
With a second Leveson Inquiry kicked into the long grass, and IPSO (the Independent Press Standards Organisation) seemingly ineffective as tabloids continue to run riot, the traction Stop Funding Hate has had is no surprise. Great swathes of the British public want to see the more unpleasant end of our media better regulated – or at least held accountable for publishing such divisive output – and the campaign has managed to curb some of its worse impulses.
Brands to have pulled advertising from The Sun, The Mail and The Express include Lego, Pizza Hut and Paperchase, while Stop Funding Hate points out a clear decline in the drip-drip of anti-migrant front pages. Daily Express editor Gary Jones has spoken openly about the influence of the campaign on his change of editorial direction since arriving at the paper in 2018. Meanwhile, a public spat between current and former Daily Mail editors Geordie Greig and Paul Dacre was rooted in claims that, since taking over, Greig's efforts to detoxify the Mail brand have been rewarded with new advertising.
Richard describes these public changes of editorial direction as "the most emphatic evidence that this type of campaigning works", adding, "This is a reflection of the commitment and the passion of supporters who have spoken out. It shows what you can do when you work together like this online."
Of course, Stop Funding Hate is not without its critics. You don't need to look far for concerns surrounding freedom of speech, partisanship, censorship or attempts to pass off Rod Liddle's digs at Muslims as merely part of the "battle of ideas". Boris Johnson has referred to the campaign group as "leftie activists trying to silence newspapers", while Piers Morgan's stamp of disapproval led to a spike in donations. Few critics, however, want to take any responsibility for helping to create the atmosphere that the campaign seeks to change.
For a sign of things to come, Richard points to The Spectator as an example of reinvigorated efforts from the campaign to widen their scope and challenge hate wherever it appears.
Despite critics suggesting that Stop Funding Hate supporters are solely far-left Corbynistas, it was Baroness Warsi – former co-Chair of the Conservative Party – who nudged Stop Funding Hate towards a recent Rod Liddle column. The article called for a general election on a day when Muslims could not vote, as well as mocking MP Rosie Duffield, who recently spoke out about her experiences of domestic abuse.
Liddle's column was immediately criticised. Chancellor Sajid Javid called it "not funny and not acceptable", adding, "No community in our country should be put down that way." The magazine's own assistant editor, Isabel Hardman, quickly distanced herself from the article, saying she was "hugely upset" by it.
Stop Funding Hate's supporters quickly approached brands that advertise in the magazine. At the time of publication, The National Theatre, Naked Wines, Averys Wine, Vodafone and Travelodge have all stated their intentions to review their advertising in The Spectator. Time will tell whether these brands act on their reviews, but being forced to interact with screenshots of their own advertising next to what the Muslim Council of Britain has called "anti-Muslim propaganda" makes it hard to hide from the issue, especially in a world where brand image is everything.
"It feels like it's on an upward curve. You can see that from the renewed support for the Crowdfunder," says Richard "We're seeing a lot more activity with our supporters."
With the help of fundraising, Stop Funding Hate hope to educate other groups and charities in how to call out media outlets about their hateful content. Richard also points to a global movement forming, with the likes of Sleeping Giants successfully challenging companies like Breitbart in the US.
Despite promising results, Stop Funding Hate aren't complacent. "I think [_The Spectator_] has been another stark illustration of the fact there's a lot still to do," says Richard. "A lot of people have looked to us and have supported the Crowdfunder, because this has been a reminder that these problems haven't gone away from the UK media. We've still got a long way to go."