The so-called ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign scored a victory this week when Paperchase buckled to online pressure and pledged never to advertise again in the Daily Mail.

If you haven’t previously heard of SFH, you can get a handy summary of its objectives from the words of its own spokesman on Newsnight last night:  “the end point for us is a media that does the job that we want it to do”. The pressure group runs online boycott campaigns to persuade companies not to advertise with newspapers that it deems guilty of “incitement to hatred”.

Pressing for boycotts is at least somewhat preferable to trying to ban articles or newspapers that one doesn’t like – which other parts of the anti-press movement have tried to do in recent years. But SFH’s attempts to effectively defund certain newspapers unless they agree to “do the job that we want [them] to do” raise some obvious concerns.

Unsurprisingly, SFH’s chosen definition of “hatred” comes from a left-wing perspective. Judging from examples given on its website, “incitement to hatred” includes a newspaper report on dastardly David Cameron’s evil attempt to negotiate limits on welfare for EU citizens, and a newspaper daring to report the official annual migration statistics. While deploying a strikingly wide definition of hatred in targeting centre right newspapers – The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – strangely SFH appears to have no concerns about any other forms of hatred or incitement from media outlets of any other political persuasion.

Of course, anyone is free to run any campaign they might choose, however biased or dubious it might be. And, as I said earlier, this approach is at least a less objectionable form of pressure than the more usual attempts to legislate out of existence ideas and institutions that the left doesn’t like. As a free marketeer I’d rather see someone use their power as a consumer to pass judgement on the behaviour of companies than try to use various forms of force.

The more interesting question is why it’s working, at least in the case of Paperchase.

The simple answer would be to say that such companies are simply responding logically to consumer pressure – carefully analysing the complaints they were receiving, judging them to represent genuine and costly outrage among their customers, and acting appropriately to avoid those costs by retreating from their mistake. It’s the free market in action, so suck up the irony, Tories (to paraphrase Jon Elledge’s enjoyable romp through the topic in the New Statesman).

In theory, that would explain it. Except that doesn’t hang together in practice. Paperchase chose to advertise in the Daily Mail in the first place. If the theory is correct that such companies are completely rational entities, possessing and acting on all the information required to glean precise insights about the views and behaviour of their customers in any given circumstance, then how did Paperchase come to make the mistake of advertising in the Daily Mail in the first place? Do we really believe this company is all-knowing this week but was a blundering idiot last week?

Put the question another way: is it more likely that this very successful firm misjudged its decision to advertise in a national newspaper whose readers include a large number of people in its target market (the type of decision which it has been making on a weekly basis for almost 50 years), or that it misjudged its subsequent response to an unforeseen political twitterstorm (an experience which is pretty new to everybody, corporate or otherwise)?


The latter scenario seems far more plausible than the former. Having worked with the press offices of several very big companies, I can assure you that they are as prone to panicking about things they don’t understand as anybody else. Indeed, they’re particularly prone to panic about online controversies because they’ve seen other firms suffer massive losses due to mismanaging them. So instead of the cool analysis of facts that theory might suggest, their natural instinct is to retreat and surrender as soon as possible, just to avoid the vividly imagined horror of becoming a ‘How Not To Handle A PR Crisis’ case study on everyone else’s training day.

The digital age means that companies know more than ever about their customers and the patterns of their sales. But it also means that every brand is navigating a huge, unpredictable maelstrom of social media commentary, all the time. There’s precious little data that reliably shows the connection, or lack of connection, between customers and online commentators. So companies like Paperchase find themselves forced to guess: are the flood of tweets they’re receiving about the Daily Mail coming from large numbers of real customers, meaning that ignoring them would incur genuine costs, or are they from a small number of activist loudmouths, meaning it’s more about unrepresentative noise than real world concerns?

It’s easy to tell someone that a dog’s bark is worse than its bite, but it’s rather harder to then open the garden gate and test the theory. So I can understand why Paperchase chickened out in this instance, though I think they were mistaken to do so. The calculation that a lot of loud shouting will rattle already jumpy businesses is the entire basis for the strategy of groups like Stop Funding Hate.

We’ll probably see more companies surrender to this type of pressure before they gain the confidence or the data to start defying it. That’s a symptom of the peculiar period of transitioning technology in which we live, and it’ll pass with time. The activists who are taking advantage of that window of opportunity simply hope that they can do enough damage to their opponents before the window closes.