Add boycotts to the list of phenomena that have been transformed in the Trump era. In the old days, consumers threatened to stop buying from a company until it changed a specific practice—ending the use of sweatshop labor, for instance. Now activists target companies that do business with other companies, like retailers that carry Ivanka Trump’s fashion line or brands that advertise on Breitbart News Network. Case in point: Consumers are going after Shopify, a Canadian company that doesn’t even sell to consumers. It’s a business-to-business (B2B) platform that provides the backend to over 375,000 online stores—including Breitbart’s.
The #DeleteShopify campaign is riding a wave of momentum against Breitbart, a far-right news outlet whose editors espouse white nationalist ideology and whose onetime executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is now Trump’s chief strategist. (Breitbart’s best-known writer, Milo Yiannopoulos, resigned this week amid charges that he had endorsed pedophilia in a video.) Over 1,100 organizations and firms, including biggies like BMW and Chase, have blacklisted Breitbart from their online ad placement after getting flagged on Twitter by an awareness campaign called Sleeping Giants. Activists are still pressuring other advertisers, especially Amazon, to pull ads; but they are also going after Breitbart’s other revenue stream—merchandise sales, particularly of T-shirts, hats, and mugs.
“Not a lot of people had probably heard of Shopify until a few weeks ago,” says Emma Pullman, lead campaign strategist with SumOfUs, a Canadian activist organization that sponsors online petitions. “Now Shopify… these days is quite a household name, and not for a good reason.”
On February 8, Shopify’s CEO, Tobias Lütke, explained his reasons for doing business with Breitbart in an elaborate essay on Medium that drew a link between free commerce and free speech and compared Shopify’s policy to the mission of the American Civil Liberties Union. “To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce,” Lütke wrote. “When we kick off a merchant, we’re asserting our own moral code as the superior one.” When asked to share its view on the comparison, the ACLU declined to comment.
SumOfUs, which describes its mission as “curbing the growing power of corporations,” rejects the free speech argument and claims that Shopify is helping fund hate speech. More than 140,000 people have joined the organization’s petition urging Shopify to dump Breitbart, and according to SumOfUs, those signatories include 15,597 Shopify-powered store owners, 759 shareholders, and “dozens” of employees. (People can state their affiliation when they sign on.) Unlike almost everyone else who’s angry at Shopify right now, these people actually have influence. But will they use it?
Even the majority of signatories, who have no real economic leverage, can still have an effect. “Most boycotts don’t spur consumers to change their behavior at all,” says Brayden King, professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. If boycotts succeed—as they do about a quarter of the time—it’s usually not because they’ve convinced consumers to change where they spend their money; it’s because they’ve generated press. King offers an extreme example: the Kentucky Fried Cruelty boycott by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in the early 2000s. “It’s not as if any member of PETA is eating at KFC. They have zero consumer power,” King says with a chuckle. “And so when they boycott KFC, they’re doing it because they’re trying to create a show that will appeal to people who can put pressure on KFC.”
In the Shopify case, the non-customer activists are trying to get the attention of Shopify’s actual clients, many of whom are already concerned about the Breitbart relationship. Glyn Lewis is one of them. “I just don’t want to see our resources going to Shopify, which is enabling this kind of hate speech,” says Lewis, who owns Kent Street Apparel, another Canadian business. “I just know that right now if I mobilize other companies, especially bigger companies, we’ll have a more powerful voice.”
Lewis has networked with other merchants and written an open letter to Shopify, but even he is hesitant about jumping ship. “I’m in the process of looking at other options. It’s not an easy switch,” he says.
Jonathan Schwartz, a Massachusetts developer who specializes in Shopify installations, describes the process in blunter terms. “Migrating a pre-existing store from one platform to another is, candidly, a royal pain in the ass,” he says. That’s true whichever direction clients are going. “A lot of times, what I’m doing is helping them migrate from somewhere else to Shopify, and that can run them tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars in branding things, development things, data-migration tasks.” It’s about as far as someone can get from the #DeleteUber campaign, where consumers could simply switch mobile apps and shift to a virtually identical service, Lyft.
The owner of an online yarn and fiber store who’s apparently moving off Shopify did not mince words when she tweeted about her situation from her personal account: “shit shit fuck fuck what the hell I can’t afford this again goddamnit shit fuck damn #DeleteShopify”
Another outspoken merchant is Michelle Gudz, owner of V Word Market. On February 17, following a call to action she posted on Medium, Gudz closed her vegan online grocery for a day. “We have been on Shopify for nearly two years. We want to be optimistic that they will change their stance, but we are still migrating our store to another provider,” she told Fast Company via Twitter. Gudz is still evaluating alternate services.
It’s easier for some people to reject Shopify because they haven’t gone all in with the service yet. “I’ve seen a lot of action on the web, of people saying things like, ‘I’m about to launch, but I’m not going to now,'” Schwartz says. Lewis adds that the bad feelings around Shopify may be the final motivator for people who were already thinking about changing e-commerce providers for business reasons.
The bad press could also discourage new customers, according to Lewis, who admits to being a big fan of the company, aside from the Breitbart issue. “They’ve alienated people who were brand ambassadors for them,” he says, referring to Shopify. “Not only are they losing customers, but they are turning people off who were out there preaching for them and now have taken a pretty hard stance against [Shopify].” (Fast Company named Shopify one of the Most Innovative Companies in 2012 and 2016.) “I found out about this Breitbart thing, and I was furious,” says Schwartz. “I felt that, wow, this company that I’ve sort of aligned myself with is doing something that I just so unbelievably disagree with.”
On February 16, SumOfUs increased the pressure again by recruiting approximately 2,000 Shopify customers to sign an open letter to the company stating, “As users of your platform, we believe you are choosing the wrong side and may decide to take our services elsewhere.”
If companies do make good on the threat, activists will be happy to assist them. Shannon Coulter, who created the #GrabYourWallet campaign against Trump-related companies, started an ever-growing Twitter conversation about Shopify competitors.
Shopify employees opposed to the company’s Breitbart stance are also making their voices heard, albeit in smaller numbers. Since the controversy erupted, at least two staffers have announced their departure. Both declined to speak with Fast Company beyond confirming that they had left. When one of them, Tessa Thornton, tweeted about quitting, she asked for leads on new jobs. This inspired SumOfUs’s Pullman to create a job board for like-minded Shopify employees.
“I put that online and said, ‘Can we help this person find a job?” Pullman says. “And immediately people started piling comments, saying, ‘Oh, let me ask around.'” That evolved into an online form on the SumOfUs site where companies can submit job postings and another where potential Shopify defectors can sign up to receive listings. (The job categories are Software Engineer, Project Manager, Designer, Customer Support, and Other.)
It could be a new kind of poaching—not necessarily by offering better pay or more stimulating assignments, but rather a values-aligned work environment. “I think it’s a pretty interesting and effective tool, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other campaigns picked up on trying tactics like this in the future,” Pullman told us in an earlier interview.
These techniques could be applied to other B2B companies. Sleeping Giants is trying to persuade the ad networks that automatically place adverts on websites to blacklist Breitbart. That would pull the ads of companies that haven’t joined the Sleeping Giants campaign. Three ad networks—AppNexus, Rocket Fuel, and TubeMogul—have signed on, but the biggest, Google, has not. Taboola, already unpopular for its practice of posting sponsored links to apocryphal news articles, is in the crosshairs as well. Pullman says that SumOfUs may also target SiriusXM for carrying the Breitbart News Daily program on the satellite network.
Both Sleeping Giants and SumOfUs are setting their sights on Disqus, which powers the discussion boards on Breitbart and many other sites. “The comments sections of these sites are where the really, really insidious shit goes down,” says a Sleeping Giants organizer who, like all members, declines to provide his name. (In his case, he works in digital marketing and fears causing friction with clients.) “Disqus keeps powering these comments sections that are really insane.”
The Shopify campaign is still in its early stages, and efforts against Disqus or Taboola haven’t begun yet. It’s unclear how effective any of this will be. “I think a lot of the rules of activism are changing right now,” says Pullman. “In the current political climate people are finding new and innovative ways to make their voices heard.”
Breitbart is known for running such inflammatory headlines as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” In that article, which is not labeled as an editorial, author Milo Yiannopoulos cites scientific studies to make outrageous claims like, “Birth Control Makes You Jiggle Wrong” and “Birth Control Makes You A Slut.”
Shopify would argue that it doesn’t defend Breitbart’s views. “We don’t like Breitbart,” Tobias Lütke wrote in a postscript to his Medium essay. “If Breitbart calls us tomorrow and tells us that they are going to switch to another platform, we would be delighted.”
Shopify has also resisted pressure from right-wing groups against certain clients, like those selling LGBTQ-oriented products. And the company has hosted several left-leaning stores, including those for the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. (It was also a platform for campaign merchandise for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.) Other liberal stores include Google Ghost (Nasty Woman products), Otherwild, (The Future is Female shirts), Wicked Clothes, and Bobo Academy. The products from these vendors generally have positive messages, such as a sweater that reads, “A Woman’s Place is in the House and the Senate’,” though Bobo Academy can get a bit raunchy. See: its “Vagitarian” and “Gay As Fuck” T-shirts.
Shopify’s position is that it will only drop customers who engage in illegal activity, such as violating copyright. Some Breitbart critics say it can go further, pointing to terms of service that allow Shopify to remove content it deems “offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, pornographic, obscene, or otherwise objectionable.” An argument could be made against Breitbart editorial content, but what of its merchandise? A T-shirt with an image of the U.S. and the words “Get In Line” might offend some people, but so could “Gay As Fuck.”
The words on Breitbart’s merch are fairly tame compared to the ones in its articles, and Shopify powers the Breitbart store, not the news site. A strong case might be made against Yiannopoulos’s online store, which features a banner that reads “Muslims suck, our shirts don’t.” One T-shirt delivers this unsubtle message: #FEMINISMISCANCER. Shopify does provide the backend to the Yiannopoulos shop, but so far, opposition to it has been relatively limited compared to the concerted anti-Breitbart campaign.
By equating commerce with speech, Shopify has armed both sides in this conflict. Speech—even really hateful speech—has broad legal protection in the U.S. and other countries. But everything that’s legal is not necessarily socially permissible. Offensive statements can wreck a company’s reputation and cause financial harm. Now perhaps offensive merchandise can as well.