By Dorothy Thompson.
I love a good old fashioned conspiracy theory. The puff of smoke from the grassy knoll, the missing frames from the Zapruder film, Area 51, and the Presidential Diary; if there is a red under the bed, or a spook who’s a kook, then I’m “all in”. So when one of our favourite commentators (Mark Ritson) alerts us to a secret society known only as “Sleeping Giants”, we thought we had should look into them and what they purport to stand for.
Their Facebook page reveals, “Sleeping Giants is an organization dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites by stopping their ad dollars”.
As if our own homegrown grievance loonies needed any additional help, outrage is now being manufactured by outside agitators. In real terms Sleeping Giants is a group of online activists spawned by the election of that Outrager-In-Chief Donald Trump in November 2016.
The group’s initial target was alt-right website Breitbart — whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon went on to become Trump’s one-time chief strategist — but today it busies itself by mobilising its followers to bombard the site’s advertisers.
Eventually, hundreds of advertisers capitulated and as many as 4000 companies added Breitbart to its advertising blacklists.
When the branch office of the group recently sprang up in Australia and its chief priority has been to shame brands out of advertising on a channel of Newspaper until it is no longer commercially viable. Activism is nothing new in the world of Australian media, but what makes Sleeping Giants different are the methods it applies to achieve its ends.
Ironically, the administrators of Sleeping Giants Oz told the “Saturday Paper” they choose to remain anonymous as their work makes them “prime targets for harassment”.
The group operates by compiling a list of advertisers on the outlet in question, sending it to followers (which it claims number 300,000 globally) and instructing them to make sure the “company in boxes are full by Monday!!!”
Additionally it urges its army of keyboard activists to take screenshots of ads appearing next to what they consider “hate speech”, tweet it to the advertiser and tag Sleeping Giants so it can keep track of the “progress”.
Enter into the fracas Sky News. There has been much said about the now infamous Blair Cottrell interview on the network. However more interestingly the saga has revealed some interesting fault lines and a double standard at work within the world of Australian media, revealing that different rules apply to legacy publishers and tech giants. It has been only a dozen or so days since Cottrell made his brief appearance on Sky News. But in that short time his Sunday evening interview on The Adam Giles Show has made many things apparent.
Mark Ritson points out: “First, and most important, unless your show appears on the History Channel, it is unacceptable to feature anyone professing even a fleeting appreciation for Adolf Hitler. Even if your intention is to argue against their case, giving the former leader of the far-right United Patriots Front airtime on national television provides an aura of legitimacy that must be avoided at all costs”.
“While that was a significant programming error, the team at Sky News probably is more than a little shocked at the speed and scale of the uproar it generated. Cottrell has, after all, appeared on TV many times before, including a significant appearance as a guest on the ABC in 2016 and an “exclusive” interview on Channel 7 this year”.
“Again, let me reiterate, that does not justify what Sky News did. But given the effusive apology from Sky News boss Angelos Frangopoulos and the commitment to not making the mistake again, Sky News, owned by News Corp, publisher of The Australian, has significant reason to feel it was singled out for special treatment”.
The real reason Sky News faced such opprobrium has less to do with what it did wrong last week and more to do with who used that error to its advantage. Sky News is being targeted by Sleeping Giants, a secretive and highly effective global organisation that works to “stop hate speech in the media”.
Gone are the days of a couple of bearded loonies in gumboots standing outside your office in the rain holding hastily created, handwritten placards. Sleeping Giants uses media expertise against media organisations to create change. Its staff members are masters at it. Simply put, its anonymous employees are considerably better at marketing and branding than most of the executives working in the media sector at the moment.
As soon as the Cottrell saga occurred, Sleeping Giants was quick to create a shortlist of Australian brands. Rather than blanket statements of outrage, Sleeping Giants knows the only way to hurt a media company, especially a TV news channel, is in the wallet by focusing on ad money. And it did not go after all advertisers; it targeted only the brands that buy media on Sky News.
Sky News has been fantastically successful in recent years in recruiting an extremely lucrative segment of the Australian viewing public.
“The companies that advertise on the channel each evening read like a list of Australia’s most valuable brands: Coles, Colgate, Huggies, American Express, Woolworths and Westpac, to name only a few.
Having selected these target brands, Sleeping Giants is adept at encouraging its thousands of followers to communicate directly with the brands in question and use social media to demand that the companies withdraw their advertising from Sky News immediately”.
Using hashtags and significant numbers of direct and repeated calls for action on Twitter and Facebook, customers bombard the brand in question with increasingly aggressive messages demanding that it comply.
“The format of the messaging is strikingly similar. Whether it be Qantas, Wesfarmers or Virgin, messages appear from a formerly loyal customer of the brand threatening to withdraw their custom from the company unless it immediately cuts advertising”.
“They point to the Cottrell interview, claim Sky News is presenting the company’s brand alongside content from “neo-Nazis, hate-speech mongers, racists and bigots”, then contrast this claim with the brand values of the organisation in question”.
“This last step is particularly impressive. Every brand prizes its brand values beyond all other things. They spend millions every year communicating and strengthening the belief that they are “friendly” or “fast and efficient” or “helpful and trustworthy”.
“A sudden influx of social media from customers targeting a brand and suggesting its present actions are off-message brings marketers out in hives. Not surprisingly, the campaign has worked with a few advertisers pulling out”.
“The irony here is that Sleeping Giants is picking up on the brand safety issue that was so successfully used by TV and news media companies last year to target social media platforms. Back then the idea that digital ads might appear next to, and ultimately pay money to, organisations that promoted terrorism, child abuse and racism resulted in significant advertising bans from some of Facebook and YouTube’s biggest clients”.
Now, however, the brand safety boot is on the other foot. Fairly or not, Sky News is being targeted for featuring Nazi sympathisers. The fact Cottrell continues to enjoy full Facebook access does not seem to have bothered any of the advertisers pulling dollars from Sky News.
“Twitter may have banned Cottrell from its site but, in contrast to Sky, this is a temporary ban and he will back on the site sharing his odious views tomorrow evening when his one-week ban ends.
Once again we are left with the uncomfortable, uncertain dichotomy between publishers and platforms”.
“Publishers such as Sky News are entirely responsible for the content that they feature and immediately held to account by advertisers. But platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube continue to claim little to no responsibility for the content on their sites despite making billions of dollars from the advertising money it attracts.
“It would be nice to think that the Sky News ban on Cottrell would result in his odious anti-Australian output being silenced forever. But Cottrell is, of course, still sharing that output via social media. His threat to rape a member of Sky’s news team was not banned by Facebook because “it did not violate Facebook’s community standards”.
Good news for Cottrell. Not so good news for brands that continue to call Facebook home.
In 1932 Aldous Huxley, published his seminal work “Brave New World”. The book presents a nightmarish vision of a future society.
Welcome to 2018.