The Racist Elephant In The Room
How Corporations Inadvertently Gave Rise To Hate-Filled, Xenophobic Media And How They Can Now Fix It
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch walked into a pizza parlor in Washington DC with an AR-15 assault rifle and fired several shots, triggering his apprehension and arrest. What if we told you that his unwitting accomplices were American corporations?
When Mr. Welch went to Comet Ping Pong Pizza that day, he claimed he was investigating a story from an Internet chat room positing that the restaurant was “harboring sex slaves”. This bizarre theory about “Washington elites’ secret sex clubs”, widely debunked in The New York Times, The Washington Post and snopes.com, was spread through articles in questionable-at-best news sites, eventually resulting in Welch’s appearance at the restaurant. The question remains, though, how were these “news sources” able to print these stories and, more importantly, who was paying for them to write them? The answer might just be, completely inadvertently, big business.
In November of this year, we launched a social media campaign called Sleeping Giants (twitter.com/slpng_giants) to understand why any corporation would willfully pay for, let alone choose to be seen next to articles titled “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews”, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” and “Young Muslims In The West Are A Ticking Time Bomb”. When we began to investigate the advertisers that are seen above this content on Breitbart News, the answers we uncovered weren’t quite what we first imagined.
Using the very public forum of Twitter, we began, simply enough, by tweeting to the CEO of loan company SoFi, including in our message a screenshot of his ad next to Breitbart’s content. Obviously, a striking visual. Within minutes, he had responded by saying that 1) the ad would be immediately removed and; 2) he had no idea how it got there. Strange, to be sure.
As we investigated further, we realized that these ads, from businesses big and small, were all over Breitbart. They are a result of a complex web of programmatic ad services where ads aren’t placed on specific sites, but rather targeted to individuals based on where they’ve visited previously online. They work quite well when, say, visiting a local water park website, but not when ads are seen next to an article titled, “Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots Of Planned Parenthood Revealed”.
Flash forward to today, nearly three weeks later. This campaign has amassed nearly 12,000 followers from all over the world who have taken on the responsibility of notifying companies of their appearance on Breitbart News. Over 140 of them, including Kellogg’s, 3M and Hulu, quickly moved to “blacklist” the site from their media plan. Most of these companies who, like SoFi, had no idea they were even on Breitbart to begin with, were shocked to hear of it and happy that we had notified them.
Steve Bannon, a founding member of Breitbart News, who has stated that he wanted the website to become the “platform of the alt-right”, a group with very close links to multiple hate groups, will now be working steps from the Oval Office. If the website that he steered for many years is any indication, we may soon no longer be getting the full story from our own government.
Responsibility may ultimately rest at the feet of the world’s corporations. Especially online. With the proliferation of these racist, sexist, xenophobic anti-Semitic and homophobic websites, they must create change with their ad dollars. If they cease to spend money on generic programmatic buys, they can make a real difference. If they remain silent or, as BMW and Nissan have already made clear in notes to us, remain “dedicated to supporting all customers”, they will not just be allowing, but actually supporting this hateful and dangerous content. Their money, whether they intend it to or not, will absolutely be flowing into the pockets of the very people who are writing this material.
Companies have an obligation, too, to demand transparency. Until now, they’ve spent months crafting advertising campaigns without putting much, if any, thought into where those ads might show up. The onus now falls on them to ask their programmatic media providers to not only provide them lists of the sites on which they will appear, but to themselves constantly audit the sites where they intend to run ads. If this situation has made anything clear, it’s that the sites who provide disinformation are also savvy enough to work around any walls put up that limit their income.
Programmatic media companies must especially step up to the plate to keep their clients from advertising in these dangerous places. This is not an issue of free speech. These websites can and should, by virtue of the Constitution, be able to print whatever they please. However, that does not mean that companies need to spend their dollars supporting them.
The campaign is not a political one. It was started, and will always remain as, an informational effort and an anti-hate effort. It is clear now that all of us, perhaps out of laziness or of being overwhelmed by too many choices, took for granted that the mores and guardrails that held us to the truth and to tolerance in our news sources. One look at Breitbart, the biggest and most high-profile source of these inflammatory articles, and you’ll understand why those guardrails are no longer sacred. For this very reason, companies need to be more vigilant than ever before about where their money is spent and what that money is supporting.
We are lucky, very lucky, that no one was harmed when Mr. Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong Parlor last week carrying his assault rifle, but we may not be that lucky next time. Perhaps the most effective prevention of this type of event might just start with America’s corporations.