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Tina Casey headshot

When Boycotts Work: Sleeping Giants Successfully Targets Breitbart Mega Donor

By Tina Casey

November marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of Sleeping Giants, a Twitter-based campaign with an open-source model. The campaign aims at putting the conservative organization Breitbart News out of operation -- or at least, reducing its influence. At first the campaign seemed like a long shot, but in an odd twist Breitbart's financial backer has just announced that he is dropping the reins of ownership.

This sounds like the beginning of the end for Breitbart, but the organization may yet survive to spread its message into the crucial 2018 midterm Congressional election cycle.

Why boycott Breitbart?

For those of you new to the topic, Sleeping Giants focused its energy on Breitbart News because of the organization's role in amplifying, and contributing to, the "hate speech" rhetoric of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

The connection was cemented by Breitbart chairman (and Trump advisor) Steve Bannon, who famously referred to the organization as the "platform of the alt-right" (alt-right is an invented term that refers to the white nationalist movement).

Aside from its Twitter account, Sleeping Giants also maintains a Facebook page with this explanation:

...Sleeping Giants is dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic news sites by stopping their ad dollars. Because of "programmatic" ad buying, many companies don't even know they are appearing on these sites. We inform them and help them with advice on taking their ads down.

In that regard, Sleeping Giants is not a conventional consumer boycott. Consumer boycotts are difficult to sustain and it is almost impossible to convince brand loyalists to turn their backs. In that regard, it would arguably be a waste of time to try convincing Breitbart readers to stop visiting the site.

Instead, Sleeping Giants focuses narrowly on businesses. The strategy has been a resounding success, at least in terms of stopping ad buys. The campaign seemed to be having a significant impact on revenue at Breitbart within just a few months, as noted by TriplePundit (among others) last spring.

Last Thursday, the campaign reported that more than 3,400 advertisers had dropped Breitbart from their ad buys.

How Breitbart survived the boycott

Painful as it was, the drop in ad revenue did not drive Breitbart out of business. The organization was supported by billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer.

Mercer is a relatively new name on the political scene. Like the now-notorious Koch brothers, he had been keeping a low profile while supporting a network of conservative causes, including the Heartland Institute. His various contributions -- financially and otherwise -- to the 2016 Trump campaign are credited with catapulting the former reality TV star into the White House.

That changed last February, when Mercer publicly acknowledged his financial support for Breitbart News.

In March, reporter Jane Mayer of The New Yorker dug deeper, and described a web of racism underlying Mercer's support for Breitbart.

The media spotlight grew brighter, and it proved an uncomfortable one. Another burst of attention occurred last month, on October 5, when Buzzfeed News published a Breitbart expose under the title, "Here's How Breitbart and Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream."

The article was based on a "cache of documents" revealing:

...how the website — and, in particular, [Milo] Yiannopoulos — links the Mercer family, the billionaires who fund Breitbart, to underpaid trolls who fill it with provocative content, and to extremists striving to create a white ethnostate.

When boycotts work: investors step in...

Though the Buzzfeed article did not gain much traction in the mainstream press, Sleeping Giants took the opportunity to extend its boycott to include investors in Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund managed by Mercer. On October 24, Bloomberg reported on the Sleeping Giants effort:
Sleeping Giants, whose members are anonymous, began the campaign Monday by targeting Michigan State University, which has about $50 million invested in a Renaissance fund. The group said in a statement on Twitter that it aims to draw a connection between investments in Renaissance and “hate speech and bigotry.”

If Buzzfeed failed to tap into the mainstream, Bloomberg punched through. B-to-B news organizations like Institutional Investor took note of the Sleeping Giants campaign:
Sleeping Giants — the advocates that helped topple Bill O’Reilly from Fox — have mobilized to pressure investors into ditching the controversial hedge fund.

Barely two weeks later after the Bloomberg article appeared, Mercer touched off a media firestorm when he announced that he was selling his stake in Breitbart News, also selling his take in Renaissance and stepping down as CEO.

Sleeping Giants could take at least partial credit for the dramatic move. Last week, for example, the New York Times reported that at least one institutional investor dropped Renaissance as a direct result of media attention.

Aside from any pressure from investors, Mercer may have also faced internal blowback from Renaissance founder James Simons, who contributed significantly to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

...or did they?

On the other hand, the picture is complicated by Mercer's stake in the data firm Cambridge Analytica. The company has been reportedly tied to Russia-linked propaganda efforts, partly through his daughter Rebekah.

Federal investigators have been exploring that connection, so it's possible that Mercer stepped down to roll up the carpet, so to speak, in case he is called to testify.

In a letter to employees, Mercer framed his ties to Breitbart in general and Yiannopoulos in particular as an expression of libertarian thinking:

"I supported Milo Yiannopoulos in the hope and expectation that his expression of views contrary to the social mainstream and his spotlighting of the hypocrisy of those who would close down free speech in the name of political correctness would promote the type of open debate and freedom of thought that is being throttled on many American college campuses today," Mercer wrote.

That's a somewhat more elaborate way of articulating the contrarian, "different thinking" argument promoted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, among others, to justify the inclusion of extremist positions in corporate decision making.

However, a more down-to-earth concern for Mercer could be the reported $7 billion in back taxes owed by Renaissance to the U.S. government.

As for Breitbart, the organization can probably still count on publishing indefinitely, as Mercer's plans include selling his stake to Rebekah Mercer.

In other words, this boycott ain't over, 'til it's over.

Image: screenshot, via breitbart.com.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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