Since mid-July the independent, Jewish-owned, conservative news outlet AchGut has found itself the victim of a targeted social media campaign of harassment which the publication states has its roots in anti-semitism. “Axis of Good” (Achse des Guten or AchGut.com) was founded by prominent German Jewish intellectual Henryk Broder. The small group of anonymous trolls who have led the campaign have not been content to simply engage in public discourse with the ideas and opinions printed by the journal. Instead, as is an increasingly familiar tactic, they have attempted to silence the publication by targeting their corporate advertisers on Twitter in a bid to shut down operations.
This tactic has routinely been employed by radical-left activists outside of Germany since the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA and since the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016.
In the UK, StopFundingHate has pressured major companies including Gillette, Aldi, Lego and British Airways to stop advertising withThe Daily Mail, The Sun andThe Daily Express. In a 2016 interview with HuffPoUK, StopFundingHate founder Richard Wilson outlined StopFundingHate’s method: “Virgin’s (Virgin Media) values are totally at odds with the Sun’s track record of misleading reporting, and of playing one group off against another in pursuit of a divisive political agenda…To survive, newspapers…need money from adverts. And advertisers do care what we think of them. They spend a fortune promoting brand values like honesty, decency and inclusivity. So if they pay for ads in papers that deal in hate, prejudice and lies, we will call them out.”
Initially Wilson’s line of attack worked, with Lego refusing to run any promotional giveaways with The Daily Mail in the future. In 2017, The Body Shop and Paperchase followed suit. However, Wilson’s tactics were heavily criticised as elitist as it assumed that all tabloid readers were easily-led bigots incapable of independent thought. More than simply being elitist however, the majority of those who supported Wilson’s social media campaign likely do not read those publications so from a freedom of press and from an economic point of view, it was a mistake for large corporations to cave to obviously political pressures.
In the USA, Sleeping Giants – run by Matt Rivitz and Nandini Jammi – was founded in 2016 after the election of Donald Trump. They began targeting the sponsors of conservative media outlets in exactly the same manner as Wilson’s StopFundingHate, with the group claiming their mission was “To stop racist websites by stopping their ad dollars.” Sleeping Giants’ biggest success was in getting 820 companies to block their ads on conservative website Breirbart– then run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.
And like StopFundingHate, Sleeping Giants also used corporate value statements to shame corporations into acting in their nakedly political interests. A statement by Lyft in response to SleepingGiants’ shame campaign read: “One of Lyft’s core values is to uplift and support one another in all that we do. We strive to ensure that our advertisements appear only on sites that share this value.” A slew of similar statements pointing to company values followed. Even German companies Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bahn, BMW and P&G Germany pulled advertising.
Much like StopFundingHate, Sleeping Giants were initially successful in no small part because of their innovative use of Twitter to tag corporations and mobilise a massive number of followers to swarm said companies with demands for them to drop sponsorship of an intended target. The numbers of participants in a swarm, which were often in the thousands, were so overwhelming to companies – completely jamming their Twitter timelines – that no doubt many felt that these demands somehow represented the will of the majority of the public. Of course, as in the UK, they never did. They simply represented a loud but tech savvy activist fringe, but wishing to protect their corporate reputations, most companies immediately caved to the mob.
The wider implication of the Sleeping Giants assault on freedom of the press was the normalisation of corporate cancel culture targeting the left and the right. In response to Kellogg’s pulling adverts from their website, Breitbart responded with a social media campaign to #DumpKelloggs. This attack on and subsequent pushback by Breitbart saw the weaponisation of corporate values and their incorporation into the wider culture wars happening in the US.
Initially, groups like StopFundingHate and SleepingGiants had success shaming large corporations into kowtowing to their political demands. However, in 2017, Gillette – who had supported both groups and pulled advertising from both The Daily Mail and Breitbart – lost an estimated $8 billion in stock value after a deeply political and progressive advertising campaign, centred on toxic masculinity, led to a social media boycott – #BoycottGillette. It was a stark warning to all those companies who had been doing what the hard left activist mob had been telling them.
Having seen the demand for values-led behaviour from corporations on their social media profile and bathed in the plaudits they received from Twitter activists for cutting advertising with ‘hateful’ media outlets, one can imagine how the company thought an advertising campaign targeting these people and their values would be a great success. Sadly for Gillette, they quickly found out that all of those outraged activists demanding that Gillette stop advertising to conservatives were not, in fact, their actual customers. They were simply activists using the company to silence political opponents.
While both Sleeping Giants and StopFundingHate are now largely irrelevant, their tactics continue to be favoured by far-left activists on Twitter.
Until now, these methods had not taken root in Germany – not for lack of effort of course. Also in 2016, AchGut found itself caught up in the international attempt to silence alternative media when the SleepingGiants supported #keingeldfuerrechts – run by Gerald Hensel – targeted their corporate sponsors. One twitter user using the hashtag tagged international energy provider E.ON demanding: “Tell me, @innogy, as a brand new brand, do you really want to advertise on a new-right online magazine?” It was enough for E.ON to respond: “Thank you for pointing this out. This was done without our knowledge. We have already instructed the agency to stop it immediately.”
No doubt aware of the power of Sleeping Giants and StopFundingHate at this time as well as the wave of anger on social media that accompanied the election of Trump in the USA and the Brexit vote in the UK, E.ON took the easy way out and placated the mob.
In 2022 however, there is no excuse for corporate cowardice in the face of Twitter harassment mobs. #keingeldfuerrechts has long gone the way of Sleeping Giants and StopFundingHate. Such groups are no longer able to mass mobilise thousands of followers to bombard corporate Twitter accounts. Largely abandoned on Twitter, they’d be lucky to raise a dozen people to help out.
It is astonishing then that once again this past month AchGut has not only been the target of this tactic but it has actually worked. What follows is an analysis of how (and why) it worked.
1. Beginning in mid-July several prominent advertisers of AchGut were contacted by a small clique of activists using the now familiar pattern. Using the hashtag #achgut a graph was made that included all mentions and replies that used that hashtag in the period 10.7.2022 – 25.7.22. This resulted in a network of 376 nodes or individual Twitter users. Nodes were ranked by size with the largest being those who mentioned or replied to the hashtag most often. By using a modularity class community detection algorithm it was possible to identify the key players who initiated the attack against AchGut. The largest nodes ranked by degree (overall influence) were @sabi_ri, @superdu18608224, @anwalt_Jun (now deactivated), @WahnSager, @HenningBuerger, @titanix18, @mtaushb. These – except for @anwalt_Jun who was tagged but did not respond – were the most influential users in the network in terms of their use of and responses to the #achgut. All were antagonistic. See network map here.
When the network was ranked by out-degree influence it was possible to identify the key information spreaders, or those accounts most responsible for initiating the attack on AchGut and, significantly, those responsible for encouraging others to pile on. The most influential accounts by out-degree influence – meaning they contacted others using the hashtag #achgut – were @Sabi_ri, @superdu18608224, @axel_mylius, @WahnSager, @meddle72, @HenningBuerger, @gjfortunas1966 and @BlumeEvolution – Michael Blume.
Blume is an anti-Semitism commissioner for Baden-Württemberg and he was criticised by AchGut earlier this year for an ongoing feud with Jerusalem Postjournalist Benjamin Weinthal whom Mr. Blume called “a rightwing extremist” on Twitter. The article also pointed out that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre named Blume among their top anti-semites for the year 2021.
Having identified the key figures, it is possible to identify their roles in the AchGut harassment network. For example, the most influential figure in the network by degree and by out-degree influence is – by a large margin – @sabi_ri. When analysing their out-degree contacts it is clear that @sabi_ri was chiefly concerned with targeting AchGut’s sponsors. This included tagging Audi, Google Adsense, Swarovski Optik, Joop, Porsche, E.ON, Tchibo, Kaufland, Lidl and many more.
The second most influential actor, @superdu18608224, uses #achgut in conjunction with several other hashtags chief among them #Tichy – referring to independent media personality Roland Tichy and #Reitschuster – referring to independent media personality Boris Reitschuster. The aim here is to link all of these independent media outlets together and single them out for harassment and demonetisation. The majority of the network served simply to signal boost the efforts of these two and other key players @HenningBuerger, @WahnSager and @mtaushb.
When analysing their out-degree contacts it is clear that @sabi_ri was chiefly concerned with targeting AchGut’s sponsors. This included tagging Audi, Google Adsense, Swarovski Optik, Joop, Porsche, E.ON, Tchibo, Kaufland, Lidl and many more.
The harassment campaign appears to have been somewhat successful. On June 28th Dirk Maxeiner stated that after a pressure campaign which targeted Audi as a sponsor of AchGut, their online advertiser Taboola dropped AchGut at a loss of E50,000 – E100,000 in income for the media outlet. This further emboldened the harassment crew. On July 5th @HenningBuerger tagged @Aktion_mensch and @MinijobZentrale asking if they still plan to advertise with AchGut after Volkswagen (Audi’s mother company) ‘cancelled them’. Action Mensch responded: “Hello everyone, thank you for the hint. We immediately stopped the payout because we don’t want to be associated with such sites.”
That the individuals involved in this harassment campaign are politically motivated is beyond doubt. All of the individuals are openly leftist. What is most interesting however is the role of Baden-Württemberg politician Michael Blume in all of this. Many appear to be acting in defence of the politician and he, likely stung by the AchGut article calling him anti-semitic, is in turn encouraging their harassment campaign. There seems little doubt that this targeted campaign against AchGut’s advertisers comes down to this feud. Blume’has routinely signal boosted the chief actors in the network through mentions and replies to the degree that he is the 8th most prolific user of #AchGut in the dataset. Blume may feel the need to defend himself against AchGut’s reporting and he has the profile to rebut them through his personal blog or through another media outlet. However, by signal boosting the accounts of harassers such as @sabi_ri and @blubberkram – an openly Antifa Twitter account – who have explicitly targeted AchGut’s advertisers, Blume seems not interested in dialogue and he appears to be an activist intent on shutting down independent media outlets who are ideologically opposed to him.
To put the current AchGut case in context, what we know from the UK and the US is that those who conduct such harassment campaigns are politically motivated and target the advertisers of conservative and independent media outlets as a means of silencing political opposition. This raises an important question. Should corporations be acting as the censorship arm of radical left activists and politicians? Obviously not. When a corporate sponsor pulls their advertising revenue from a media outlet, they are de facto deciding what information gets published and read by the public. When their decision to remove that funding is based on political pressure they are adopting a political and cultural stance. Why should a tiny clique of hard left activists get to deprive a conservative or independent audience of a news outlet that caters to their interests? Assisting in this ensures that corporations are contributing to societal conflict. And further, as Gillette learned the hard way, such meddling is not always a smart financial move.
This leads to an important point. Is it a good move financially for the likes of Audi and E.ON to remove sponsorship from AchGut? These brands have made the decision that the reputation of their public brand is worth more than the potential earnings brought in by advertising with AchGut. While only the brands themselves will know if there is a financial impact what can be stated is that those individuals who are shaming them into distancing from AchGut could not care less whether Audi or E.ON succeed or fail financially. They are not, by and large, their customers and in the cases where these activists are openly Antifa, they are explicitly anti-corporation, anti-capitalist individuals who are happy to see these brands fail.
They are a tiny but loud clique of activists who are using these brands to club their political opposition. Out of the AchGut harassment network of 376 Twitter accounts, only ten have more than 10 out-degree actions – mentions or replies using #Achgut. That essentially means that it only took 10 Twitter users – most likely not customers – to shame these global corporations into defunding AchGut. Left at that then these companies could say it was still worth any potential lost revenue as a show of commitment to their values.
But as the UK and the USA have shown, these companies must not be allowed to slink quietly away. They have now entered the culture wars. They have now politicised their brands and as a matter of financial survival and as a matter of fighting for the right to a free press it is now incumbent upon AchGut, Roland Tichy, Boris Reitschuster and any other stated targets of this harassment crew to fight back. It’s time to #DumpAudi, #DumpEON and dump any other company that decides to take a stance against a free and open press.
Eoin Lenihan is a Twitter data expert. This article was sent to IsraelUnwired by Collin McMahon