When the boycott of a boycott becomes news

Even before the “anti-woke” GB News channel began its first broadcast, the campaign group Stop Funding Hate had started a boycott. Then the first shows began to air, the outrage started to grow on Twitter, and the calls for boycotting advertisers increased. Viewers could now identify and contact those corporations who were giving their money to the news channel.

Within days, GB News hit back with a boycott of their own. They are urging their viewers to boycott the companies boycotting them. These include the Open University, Specsavers, Grolsch, Ikea, and Kopparburg.

The boycott war seems to have gained lots of publicity for GB News even as supposedly their ad revenues are decreasing. This didn’t seem to bother GB News’ chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos when he talked to Business Insider. Attempts to silence them are are part of “cancel culture” on social media, he claimed. GB News have found themselves a target of it but that it’s not shared beyond the “bubble of social media platforms.”

Frangopoulos adds, “The power of some of these social media platforms is quite frankly exaggerated and not reflective of the broader population, particularly on Twitter. … I get many messages saying: “Have you seen this tweet?” And I say no, because I don’t really want to. It doesn’t really matter.”

GB News took to Twitter as well though.

At the same time, a third opinion has emerged on social media. Some claim that boycotting advertisers or forcing them to cancel advertising is in itself problematic.

In a democracy, shouldn’t advertisers choose what to do without interference?

And here we have a useful question that needs to be answered: How does advertising affect news programs.

Magazines and newspapers are there to sell ‘eyeballs’ to advertisers but social media has begun to do that too. Primarily the creation of social media has suggested a shift:

“No longer can we sell a huge market we know little about to advertisers merely craving eyeballs,” wrote authors Craft and Davis in their book Principles of American Journalism: An Introduction (2016). “The rise of social media networks give the news media a new metric: engagement.”

Similarly, in explaining the Propaganda Model from Manufacturing ConsentChomsky writes:

“The successful media today are fully attuned to the crucial importance of audience ‘quality’…the mass media are interested in attracting audiences with buying power, not audiences per se; it is affluent audiences that spark advertiser interest today, as in the nineteenth century.

The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media ‘democratic’ thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!”

And it was almost always ever so. The use of advertising not only helped publishers reduce the cost of newspapers themselves in the 1800s, but it also helped radical working class papers go out of business. Advertising was not merely a democratic right. As Curran and Seaton write in Power Without Responsibility, advertisers have a history of selecting the eyeballs they want to sell to:

“In 1856 the principal advertising handbook detailed the political views of most London and local newspapers with the proud boast that ‘till this Directory was published, the advertiser had no means of accurately determining which journal might be best adapted to his views, and most likely to forward his interests’” (emphasis my own)

This theory, thus far, works for newspapers and channels that need advertising to increase their revenue. There are, however, newspapers that are run with no profit at all. In fact, the Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, had its value slashed to zero after millions in losses. The eyeballs are seemingly worth more than the revenue.

A clue to the reality of this is in the actions of the chair of GB News, Andrew Neil. He has not sought to placate advertisers but has hit out at them quite strongly. The last time he did this, he had strong backing from his then boss, and deep pockets. The boss was Rupert Murdoch when Neil was editor of the Sunday Times.

He writes the following in his autobiography Full Disclosure:

Mohamed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, called me one night in the mid-eighties to complain about a story we had run criticizing the way he was renovating the house in Paris once occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I offered him space to put his point of view. He demanded a retraction and an apology. I refused. He threatened to withdraw all Harrods’ advertising from Times Newspapers.
‘You can’t do that,’ I said.
‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘It’s my advertising.’
‘Because as of this moment,’ I replied, ‘you are banned from advertising in The Sunday Times’
He hung up, somewhat mystified.

A half hour later the phone went again. It was Rupert, calling from New York. This, I thought, could be a tough one.
‘I hear you’ve just banned our biggest advertiser,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I replied, explaining the circumstances.
How much do Harrods spend with us?’ he enquired.
‘About £3 million,’ I said nervously. There was silence at the other end of the line. I contemplated whether it would be better to back down or resign and become an unlikely hero of the chattering classes.
‘F — — him if he thinks we can be bought for £3 million,’ he said,
and hung up.

The boycott wars tell us two things about GB News; it is quite specific on which eyeballs it wants to preach too, and it has deep pockets. Neither of those criteria have ever helped democracy.

Stop Funding Hate acts to reverse the incentives for the media in reporting hate. If newspapers don’t find it profitable to preach hate, then they will stop.

GB News’ actions, and the Sun’s financial straits, however, are evidence that these campaigns and newspaper narratives are not about profit alone.

What are some of the narratives that GB News are currently promoting? One is a petition to stop “illegal” immigrants entering the country and other narratives have been anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in 2015:

“History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities… it is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used… simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers”

Let’s be worried, but also, let’s see how much social media can adapt to this switch from eyeballs to engagement. That’s where the next war will be made visible.

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