#iComment: Channeling the power of online masses to curb hate speech in Europe

by Ana Ribeiro

The battle over hate speech in the public sphere has reached a new level, as an online initiative hitting British tabloids in their pockets has gone viral and started to yield results. It is one of the movements seeking to cut off supply and demand from the hate wave by mobilising internet users. ECPMF spoke to the campaign’s founder about his aims.

Stop funding Hate

Stop Funding Hate, the online initiative targeting the tabloids’ income, is trying to get companies to quit advertising in The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express, as a form of protest and boycott against the xenophobia and other venom they spout. It encourages individuals to call the tabloids out on hate speech via their own voices or shares online – so that advertisers concerned about their brands will listen – and has multiplied via social media momentum and ordinary people’s actions.

Simultaneously, the No Hate Speech Movement is ongoing in Europe, aimed at making especially young internet users both actively fight and refrain from employing and spreading cyber-hate. Started in 2012 by the Council of Europe, it has spun off into country-specific chapters – such as Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. The hashtag #NoHateSpeech is very active on Twitter.

No Hate Speech casts a wider net than tabloids, while focusing on the web: “The campaign is against the expressions of hate speech online in all its forms, including those that most affect young people, such as forms of cyber-bullying and cyber-hate. [It] is based upon human rights education, youth participation and media literacy. It aims at reducing hate speech and at combating racism and discrimination in their online expression.”

What makes Stop Funding Hate stand out is its specific targeting of the symbiotic relationship between the private media and advertising industries. They are lifelines for each other, and increasingly so online, in an age where print subscriptions are down – so the campaign is striking right where it could hurt the most.

#StopFundingHate: Early successes and motivations

Long known for gossip and sensationalism, The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express have also become notorious over the years for promoting negativity towards migrants and divisiveness in society. This has recently reached a fever pitch, amid the refugee crisis and the referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union. Especially The Sun and Daily Mail, two of the most-read newspapers in the UK, are said to have played a part in enabling “Brexit” by urging their readers to vote “Leave”.

Reached right where they tend to get and spread their news, and upset about the latest political and social developments, more and more Internet users are joining the countermovement. Stop Funding Hate’s Facebook page now has over 207,000 followers. Their petition urging Virgin Media to stop advertising in The Sun has about 50,000 signatures, and their launch video has about 7 million views on Facebook. Other similar petitions have been picking up steam under its banner.

After receiving a complaint from a reader connected to Stop Funding Hate, Danish toymaker Lego announced it would withdraw toy giveaway promotions from the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, British retailer John Lewis has been suffering pressure from its own staff and partners (and even from the music band in its popular #BusterTheBoxer ad) to pull out from the tabloids. In solidarity with the campaign, a British novelist has asked her publisher to stop sending books for the tabloids to review.

The collective pullout of advertisers has had catastrophic effects before for one of the most widely read English-language newspapers in the world, now defunct. The notorious phone hacking scandal surrounding News of the World led to an advertising exodus, which in turn helped lead to the tabloid’s shutdown in 2011 after 168 years in print.

Talking with the ECPMF, Richard Wilson, the founder of the Stop Funding Hate movement, stated that they “do not want to see any publication closed down. We are not calling for any publication to be removed from sale. People must be free to buy The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express if they wish. Equally, customers of companies such as Lego and John Lewis are fully within their rights in seeking to influence the advertising choices of those companies through polite and friendly persuasion.”

He added:

At a time when hate crime is rising and newspapers are systematically demonising whole sections of our society, people have a right to say ‘not with my money’. This, too, is a matter of freedom of choice, and freedom of expression.”

Stop Funding Hate has caught on more quickly than Wilson expected, and attracted the attention of big media outlets internationally, to which he has also given interviews. The tabloids in question have declined to comment when approached by other media.

"What we're hoping to do, is to pressure companies that we shop with to change who they advertise with and change this hate-filled discourse for a more human way of talking about each other”, Wilson told the BBC’s Newsbeat. “It's going to keep happening until the financial balance changes and if we can get to the point where actually you don't make money by publishing these headlines, you lose money because advertisers are going to walk away.”

Necessity or censorship?

An April 2015 Sun article calling migrants “cockroaches”, besides other insults, led the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to publicly call for a collective curbing of hate speech incited specifically “by British tabloid newspapers”. The statement was reportedly the catalyst for the founding of Stop Funding Hate by Wilson, a former employee of Amnesty International and vocal author concerned with issues of violence in Africa (where his own sister was killed in an attack).

Wilson told Cambridge platform The Tab that “[cockroaches] was a term used in Rwanda to demonise the Tutsis and then created a mentality that helped to make genocide possible in Rwanda. So that’s a glimpse at what’s at the far end of the spectrum when you start to demonise and dehumanise people.” Meanwhile, Stop Funding Hate has garnered mixed reactions from commentators in the British media.

An online headline in the British conservative magazine The Spectator calls it “a nasty, elitist campaign for press censorship”, and the media Platform features similar accusations by the editor of a regional British daily. By contrast, an article in Gay Star News vehemently praises Wilson’s initiative, by an author personally connected to the person and cause.

British webzine Spiked, a vigorous libertarian critic of the EU Commission’s code of conduct urging Internet platforms to eradicate hateful comments, has extended its criticism to Stop Funding Hate. A 17 November article in the magazine says the campaign “is entirely about censorship. (…) Tabloids fulfil an important role by brashly questioning the status quo and the elites of society. You may not like what they say, but you are under no obligation to buy them.”

The Spiked article refers to Stop Funding Hate’s Christmas video now online as “possibly the most middle-class attack on the free press ever.” At the same time, design magazine Creative Review published a friendlier article about the video, stating that “the film created by the group… makes a point which will no doubt unsettle those brands featured: that the feel-good messages of togetherness and sharing in their Christmas ads are not reflected in the press where their ads often appear. The intention, of course, is to rally customers to advocate for change by the brands.” On 21 November, Branding Magazine named the video – made to coincide with the ads from the very companies Stop Funding Hate is calling on – “Good Campaign of the Week”: It lobbies “for positive change in a constructive way” and “is the kind of example we want to set for our children.”

The ECPMF asked Wilson to comment on accusations that Stop Funding Hate amounts to censorship. He replied that “freedom of expression is a core value for Stop Funding Hate”, while “it is important to take note of concerns that the behaviour of some newspapers poses a significant threat to freedom of expression.”

To illustrate his point, Wilson quoted from a 2012 statement the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum provided to the Leveson Inquiry (prompted by the News of the World phone hacking and ethics case): “many of us… have concerns that if we are to challenge the tabloid press we would be targeted in the same way our service users are—through inaccurate and biased stories. We feel completely silenced and unprotected and unable to take part in the public debate”.

In connection with the statement, Wilson wrote that “if anything, the problems have intensified since then. It's now commonplace for those who speak up for compassion or speak out against discrimination to be subjected to vicious personal attacks. We believe that freedom of expression is for everyone – not only for newspaper editors.”

Keep up and speak out

Future articles in our series will deal with different countries and regions in Europe, as well as media freedom organisations. Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook, under the hashtag #iComment.


The Wilsons and the Daily Mail

Founder Richard Wilson’s involvement in Stop Funding Hate runs into the personal level, as illustrated by the book excerpt he published on his blog on 22 August “to give some background” regarding his actions. It is from his 2006 book Titanic Express, which “focusses on the death of [his] sister Charlotte in a massacre in Burundi in December 2000”. 

The excerpt reveals that a reporter from the Daily Mail had shown up trying to interview his mother at home regarding his sister’s life. She had politely refused and explained why, as Wilson describes:

“She told him that she was an English teacher, and for the last ten years she had been working with people who’d fled from some of the world’s most troubled countries. (…) Several were still receiving treatment for the torture they had suffered. Those who were allowed to work at all had grinding, menial jobs. Large numbers faced the prospect of being forcibly returned to the warzones they had fled, amid government protestations that these countries were ‘safe’. She had lost count of the number of times a student had mentioned in class that another loved one back home had been killed. And she had lost count of the number of newspaper articles she had seen portraying refugees as liars, cheats, frauds, ‘bogus’ people. (…) so many of these stories were emanating from the Daily Mail, and its sister paper the Evening Standard. My mother had seen the effect of these stories on government policy, and she’d seen the effect of those increasingly harsh policies on her students. She would feel she was betraying them now if she had anything to do with the Daily Mail. (…) I knew how angry she had been about the distortion and duplicity of newspapers like the Daily Mail. And yet, just three days after suffering one of the worst blows of her life, faced with a representative of an organisation that she and most of her colleagues regarded as something close to ‘hate media’, she’d shown a calmness and dignity that I found quite extraordinary.”