An open letter to Mr Bezos, Mr Pichai and Mr Zuckerberg to tear down Breitbart News
In 2016, a terrorist with a machine gun killed two and wounded seven people sitting in a Tel Aviv pub two blocks from my flat. Later that same year, two other gunmen murdered three and injured five at the complex to where my company at the time was moving a few weeks later.
In 2015, I carried a pepper spray gun as I walked to and from work at a time when terrorists were stabbing people daily on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as ramming into them with cars. Many other Israelis took self-defense classes or bought knife-proof clothing.
Almost every day during the summer of 2014, I woke up to missiles from the Gaza Strip exploding above my building and ran to bomb shelters in the afternoons and evenings whenever air raid sirens would signal the approach of a new volley of rockets.
I could go on. Such terrorist attacks intentionally target innocent people out of beliefs in their religious or racial inferiority. I despise terrorists, theocrats, and racial supremacists of all kinds. I believe Breitbart News aids and abets them. So, excuse me if I take this personally.
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Identity is a complex idea, but I say that I am Jewish and white. My ancestors hail from Poland, Germany, and Ireland. But I have more in common with the peace-loving Arabic, Islamic, and Druzi people who I know here in Israel than with the useful idiots who marched in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed a protester last month. Ethnicity and religion are not the sum total of a person’s identity or the determinants of the ethical actions to take in any given situation. There is an objective morality that transcends blood and faith.
That is why I am using this particular marketing column to call on Amazon, Facebook, Google, Taboola and all others who profit from Breitbart News to blacklist the publication and cut all ties. Some things matter more than money. In my Promotion Fix columns for The Drum and my keynote talks as a marketing speaker, I often discuss the ways that the marketing industry can improve itself. This issue is the most important one today, particularly as Breitbart has expanded with bureaus in London, Jerusalem, and elsewhere.
It goes beyond left or right – it is about humanity and those who would deny others their humanity. For advertisers, it is also about protecting their brands from horrible associations. I am not advocating for censorship, which is government suppression or prohibition of media that is considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security. If advertising platforms decline to work with a certain publisher, then that is a business and market-based decision.
Yes, we in the journalism, marketing, and media worlds generally lean to the left. The conservative media use that fact that create a false equivalency and say that they are doing the same thing as “the liberals” but on the other side. The traditional media do our best to be accurate, comprehensive, and fair while knowing that our subconscious biases sometimes influence our choices of words and story angles. Sometimes we get it wrong.
But starting with The Rush Limbaugh Show on US radio in 1988 and Fox News on US television in 1996, the right-wing media have knowingly and intentionally distorted the news from the very beginning to advance a political agenda. It is nowhere close to the same thing. (Just read this confession of former Fox News “hitman” Tobin Smith.)
What Breitbart News does
Breitbart News and US president Donald Trump are the logical result of 30 years of increasing right-wing misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies that have pushed a large number of people further and further through a delusional looking glass and down a dangerous rabbit hole. (Just see Jen Senko’s documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad.”)
One researcher found that Breitbart headlines today are eerily similar to those of 1920s Ku Klux Klan newspapers in the United States. Breitbart has featured icons of globes around the names of Jewish people in headlines (but has since deleted them). “Globalist” is a very old anti-Semitic dog whistle for “Jew.”
Breitbart’s hostility goes beyond race and religion. In this collection from Media Matters for America, Breitbart is shown to have published articles stating that the tech world is not biased against women because women simply “suck at interviews” and that “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.”
Rolling Stone’s archive shows that Breitbart has also published pieces describing a “Muslim rape culture” among Islamic immigrants in Europe, advocating that lesbians and gay people “get back in the closet,” and saying that the US Confederate flag “represents a glorious heritage” even though it was hoisted by traitorous states that betrayed their country because they wanted to keep millions of people in chains. And let’s not forget the ludicrous allegation that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya.
Who reads Breitbart? Just see the people who an undercover activist met when he infiltrated the alt-right movement. It’s little wonder that consuming right-wing media makes people less informed than if they had not taken in any news at all.
Why I believe Breitbart News is dangerous
There have always been crackpot publications that are small and harmless, but Breitbart has actual power. According to SimilarWeb, the website receives 83m visits per month. Breitbart also threatened to sue "a major media company" that described it as a "white nationalist website", a description it rejects as "defamatory".
As someone who lives in the Middle East, I can attest that Breitbart’s playbook is frighteningly similar to what extremists do here – and to what white supremacists have always done in the United States.
Terrorists here in Israel have increasingly used car ramming as a tactic in recent years. More recently, car ramming has happened in England, France, and Germany as the method has become more popular among terrorists of all kinds.
In 2016, conservative commentator Instapundit Glenn Reynolds advocated that drivers hit protesters in North Carolina. Then, a video of various cars hitting protesters made the rounds on far right media. During the Charlottesville rally last month, one of the white supremacists rammed into a protester and killed her. Later, a car ran into protesters in St. Louis, Missouri. Overall, the US public broadcaster PBS found that the far right commits 300 violent acts every year.
Now, it is impossible to state that Breitbart or any other publication specifically caused any of these individual incidents. But we who work in marketing know that direct attribution in advertising campaigns – or propaganda campaigns – is usually impossible to assign. Rather, we know general principles of behavior and how to influence people on a mass scale.
If you take a receptive group of people and bombard them with messages over and over again, then at least some will eventually believe you – especially if, for whatever reason, those specific individuals have a less-than-healthy mental state. All it takes is for one disturbed person to read one too many inflammatory articles, get into his car, and run someone over.
It is the slow drip and plausible deniability that make Breitbart and every other far right publication so dangerous. They never need to accept responsibility for any specific individual action because it is impossible to connect the dots of incitement directly. Terrorists undergo the process of “becoming radicalized” over time – which is what also happens all too often on many sides here in the Middle East.
The subtle provocations are working. Conservative propaganda has pushed the Overton window of acceptable political discourse so far to the right that a recent Washington Post and ABC News survey found that 9% of those in the US – roughly 36 million people – now “call neo-Nazi views acceptable.”
The move to boycott Breitbart News
Following Donald Trump’s US election victory in November 2016, the online group Sleeping Giants called on activists to take screenshots of advertising that appears on Breitbart and then pressure the companies to blacklist the publication. Demands for advertiser boycotts also appeared on the Sum of Us, Petition Site, MoveOn.org, and Change.org websites.
Over the first two months of the protest, companies including Kellogg's, BMW, and Deutsche Telekom stopped advertising on Breitbart. (Sleeping Giants’ list of companies who have reportedly stopped advertising on the website is here.)
In February 2017, Amazon employees reportedly began to push the company to cut ties with the far-right publication. In May, there was a protest outside the company’s annual shareholder meeting as well as a later mobile billboard that was circulating around Seattle.
Also in May, Sleeping Giants called on Google’s three largest shareholders, Vanguard Group, Blackrock, and Fidelity, to pressure the company to cut ties with Breitbart.
In August 2017, Lastminute.com and the Royal Bank of Scotland pulled their ads from Breitbart. After the completion of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, organizers called for a boycott of the supermarket until Amazon would stop advertising on Breitbart.
Who still advertises on Breitbart News
On 14 September 2017, I deactivated my ad blockers, script blockers, and VPN and then visited Breitbart News to take screenshots. Here is what I found:
The biggest ad platforms that Breitbart still uses are Amazon, Google, and Taboola. Breitbart’s Facebook page has 3.37 million followers as well, and ad buyers have also criticized the Facebook Audience Network for placing ads on the website. All of these companies are profiting from Breitbart News.
(Note: Neither Breitbart nor Amazon, Google, or Taboola returned my requests for comment. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for this column but referred me to the company’s documentation on community standards, monetization standards, content guidelines, and ad policies for information on what is and is not allowed.)
It is also important to note that Amazon founder, chairman, and chief executive Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post in 2013. Following Trump’s election, the newspaper adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and has extensively investigated the president’s alleged misdeeds. But hypocritically, Amazon itself has not distanced itself from Trump-supporting Breitbart News in a similar way.
Where Breitbart News gets funding
According to a lengthy New Yorker report in March 2017, Breitbart executive and future Trump administration chief strategist Steve Bannon had once convinced Renaissance Technologies co-chief executive Robert Mercer to put $10m into Breitbart News (and later $13.5m into Trump’s presidential campaign). If Breitbart cannot survive without handouts, then thankfully that is a sign that there is not a real market for the publication’s hostile opinions.
(The New Yorker report also discusses Mercer’s political beliefs, some of which are allegedly that nuclear weapons are not so dangerous, climate change will lead to more plant and animal life, and black Americans were better off before the civil rights movement.)
Mercer also invested $5m dollars in Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that worked for the Brexit and Trump campaigns. (According to the New Yorker, the company is the American affiliate of Strategic Communication Laboratories in the UK.)
Following Bannon’s departure from the White House and return to Breitbart, he is reportedly planning a continued global expansion and far-right television network. But if advertisers continue to abandon the publication, even Robert Mercer might not even be able to save the company.
In 1987, then-US president Ronald Reagan spoke in front of the Berlin Wall and said this to the then-leader of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was asking the Soviets to destroy something evil that they had built. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Taboola have helped to build Breitbart News.
Mr. Bezos, Mr. Pichai, Mr. Zuckerberg, and Mr. Singolda, tear down this website.
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, a global marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.