In 2016, activists concerned with the flow of programmatic advertising dollars to mostly right wing websites known to spread misinformation and bigoted content started Sleeping Giants. Utilizing social media, the effort succeeded in using social media to pressure major advertisers to pull ads from sites such as Breitbart. In a preprint, researchers from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) detail the emergent strategy of the organization, and its effects.
With an annotated database of Sleeping Giants communications- both from its original Twitter account and from “chapters” elsewhere in the world- the researchers sought to answer whether its activism was effective in provoking the intended response, how its efforts affected the “popularity and engagement” of the sites it targeted, and the extent to which interactions with companies were impacted subsequent to a campaign.
The researchers find that out of a sample of 161 Sleeping Giants complaints to companies running ads on sites it deemed offensive, 84% produced a response. The researchers also found that the intensity of the social media pressure campaign mattered in the average amount of time it took for Sleeping Giants and its supporters to provoke a response- the number of Twitter mentions of an advertiser per minute “is strongly correlated with the time between the complaint and the answer.” The researchers find ongoing effects on the targeted sites, but that engagement with the advertisers is transient and returns to normal after campaigns end.
Despite its online nature, there is some question as to whether the Sleeping Giants strategy is unique, or whether it represents more of a tactical innovation on past boycotts.
“I don’t buy the premise that this tactic is unique because it has an ‘activism model that has been replicated across the globe and, unlike many, has an objective that is both clear and easily verifiable,'” said Dr. Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies activism and protest, responding to the preprint. “Rather, I see this as an extension of the tactic of boycotting, employing social media to achieve similar goals.”
Nevertheless, Fisher regards the empirical analysis of Sleeping Giants as valuable. “Badgering companies online yields results- companies respond online and their online profile changes.” She referred to Grab Your Wallet, another online boycott that initially targeted stores carrying Ivanka Trump’s products, as another example that emerged at a similar time.
There has been backlash to the Sleeping Giants campaign, but the researchers did not observe an effective counter movement. Sleeping Giants has been threatened with lawsuits and harassment. Its Brazilian chapter was targeted by supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro. In an email, one of the study’s authors pointed to “Awake Giants,” a Twitter account in Brazil that campaigns against what it refers to as “censorship” by brands that meet demands such as those by Sleeping Giants, but noted it has had little effect. “Nevertheless, closely studying the interplay between activist movements and counter-movements remains an interesting question for future work,” wrote one of the study’s authors, EPFL’s Manoel Ribeiro.
While the activists involved in the early days of Sleeping Giants- Nandini Jammi and Matt Rivitz- are no longer working together following a dispute over Jammi’s role, the focus on holding brands to account for their advertising choices continues. Now, Sleeping Giants is a partner to a new effort targeting Fox News called DropFox that is “urging media buyers not to buy advertisements on Fox News, warning that any ad spend on the network will fund the promotion of COVID conspiracy theories, bigotry and lies.”
The researchers regard looking for potential offline effects of such campaigns as an interesting next direction. “It would be interesting to correlate the responses of the campaign with the public image of companies or their sales, but this analysis would need to be done very carefully to properly isolate the effects of the activist movement,” said Ribeiro.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.