Keyboard Warriors, Starbucks Boycotts And Virtue Signaling For Fun And Profit!

black coffee matters. Illustration by Tom White

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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The Starbucks vagrancy/racism episode that occupied so much of the news cycle last week presents us with an opportunity to learn more about how boycotts may have changed – for better or worse – in our digital age. While it’s easy to shrug off the episode as mere “slacktivism” or corporate virtue signaling, remove the cynicism and the issue presents a deeply layered set of principles that all Americans interested in free speech and social activism of all kinds should examine.

Let’s get some disclaimers out of the way: I don’t particularly like Starbucks coffee (and I drink a lot of coffee), and most of the shops in the New York area are a cartoon mélange of not-quite-hipsters; people who can’t afford an office and set up shop there; and millennials not afraid to interact with a large corporation. (Starbucks’ market cap is approximately $84 billion). Finally, I don’t have enough facts to weigh in on the actual incident that started this most recent boycott, but the incident itself is secondary to the larger question: Are boycotts more or less effective than in the pre-digital age? Why do some work and others fizzle out or even backfire?

Boycotts: history and law

Boycotts are a genuine expression of the liberty of conscience that holds a preferred place among our constitutional rights. This proposition holds great historical and legal support. Conservatives and libertarians – even those who disagree with the current Starbucks boycott – must recognize that boycotts played an essential role in American Revolutionary history. The Boston Tea Party was in fact an offshoot of a colonial boycott. Prior to the famous raid, the British Parliament placed onerous import duties with the passage of the Tea Act in 1773. Merchants in Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia boycotted British tea shipments, but merchants in Boston refused to join the boycott. The actual raid itself, led by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty was the boycotters’ way of taking direct action and extending the boycott to Boston. The die was cast, and boycotts became part of the American political legacy.

The most direct connection between boycotts and the First Amendment came in the 1982 Supreme Court case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware. In a nutshell, by 1966 the black community in Claiborne County, Mississippi was sick and tired of discrimination in employment and decided to boycott businesses there. Organizer Charles Evers said “We mean business, white folks. We ain’t gonna shoot you all, we are going to hit you where it hurts most: In the pocketbook and in the ballot box.

In response, city business leaders brought a lawsuit against the NAACP, claiming that the boycott was a conspiracy to commit several common-law torts, including intentional interference with business. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. In a unanimous decision (Justice Thurgood Marshall having recused himself for conflict of interest as a former NAACP lawyer) Justice Stevens wrote that like pamphleteering:

“The boycott clearly involved constitutionally protected activity. The established elements of speech, assembly, association, and petition, “though not identical, are inseparable.” Through exercise of these First Amendment rights, petitioners sought to bring about political, social, and economic change. Through speech, assembly, and petition – rather than through riot or revolution – petitioners sought to change a social order that had consistently treated them as second-class citizens.”

Like the boycotts engendered by the activism of Rosa Parks before and Cesar Chavez later, Claiborne and the First Amendment protection extended to boycotts made them powerful tools — or weapons — of social change.

Byte-sized justice

This brings us back to the primary question: Are boycotts different and more or less effective in the digital age? I think the answer is yes to all of the above. Where in the past demonstrations and boycotts required labor-intensive organization, the ease with which information (accurate and otherwise) can be distributed online so widely and so quickly makes the barrier to entry extremely low. Responding to a Facebook posting asking people to “please share” any exhortation to boycott is idiot simple: social justice with one click of a mouse.

The low barrier to entry has resulted in the dilution of a boycotts’ impact because we are inundated with such appeals. Save this animal. Don’t eat at this restaurant. Don’t buy this product. Don’t watch this television show. A new species of citizen has evolved: The Keyboard Warrior.

The Keyboard Warrior is the Darwinistic result of “slacktivism.” No-cost efforts such as a mouse click or hash tag have become acceptable substitutes for substantive action and personal sacrifice. “I expressed my outrage, I shared my virtue with the world, and I’ve done my bit. What more do you want from me?

Virtue signaling for fun and profit

It’s become common for corporations to develop plans and approaches to building digital “tribes” in search of customer loyalty. Newswhip.com published an end-of-year “awards” listicle that highlights some of the successes and failures of companies building customer loyalty by gathering “tribes.” To be sure, many of these companies have chosen “social justice” themes around which to gather their tribes. Marketers decided that some products will sell better if the consumer identifies shared virtuous social values with that product.

That doesn’t always work. Pepsi was forced to drop an insipid and tone-deaf advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner who quells a racially-tinged confrontation by handing out Pepsi. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, tweeted epically: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

For boycotts to manifest from meaningless mouse clicks to actual social change requires more than simple outrage. The transition from bytes to boycotts now requires a target large enough to generate interest; an “outrageous” action or event in the real world as opposed to an abstract idea; and the way that the target does or doesn’t react to the call for boycott. Online denizens are so frequently confronted by outrage of one sort or another that we’ve become numb.

The Austin Statesman-American published a thoughtful op-ed titled “Why political boycotts can make a statement — or backfire” arguing that the saturation of calls to boycott have had a negative effect on the success rate:

“The recent increase in boycotts is likely limiting their effectiveness by overwhelming the public. Between 1990 and 2007, only 213 boycotts were mentioned in the six largest U.S. newspapers; by contrast, in the 200 or so days of its existence, the anti-Trump #GrabYourWallet campaign alone has launched boycotts against over 50 companies. Beyond this campaign, if you’re on social media or have friends who are, you already know that you’re expected to boycott Target because of bathrooms, Chick-fil-A because of gay marriage, Fox News because of Bill O’Reilly, and Nordstrom because it was unfair to Ivanka. This explosion in activism is overwhelming for consumers, and each new boycott decreases the likelihood of any individual one achieving its broader goals.”

Academics have pointed out that companies engaging in connecting themselves to social causes may be more vulnerable to online boycotts, citing evidence that social media activists can sometimes influence corporate agendas. After Target announced an “open bathroom” policy for transgender customers in 2016 saying “Everyone deserves to feel they belong” on its website, protests spurred on-line forced the company to backtrack and announce it would spend $20 million to add a private bathroom to each of its stores.

Boycotts and backfires

This brings us back to Starbucks. Lost in the current news cycle is the history that Starbucks was the target of a previous boycott effort last year that failed. Hard-right conservatives tried it after CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Although the share price suffered a quick dip it eventually recovered. (Measuring the impact of the boycott by the share price is probably not a very accurate barometer, given that at least in Starbucks’ case, not a lot of the “tribe” they speak to buy and sell equities.) Left-wing media touted the boycott as a failure. As MarketWatch reported, financially and logically it made sense for Starbucks to stand its ground.

Boycotts often have a boomerang effect and actually create a “counter-tribe” to gather and come to the company’s defense. No greater example of this phenomenon has occurred than in the 2012 Chick-fil-A saga. Although the stores and products do not reflect or proselytize any Christian message, and the company never held discriminatory policies against the LGBTQ community, Keyboard Warriors discovered that company president Dan Cathy held personal views against gay marriage. One of the Keyboard Warrior’s principal rules is that Wrongthink must be punished.

The digital outrage machine generated physical protests at the stores, culminating in an infamous episode of a smug protestor berating and bullying a teenaged employee. The public reaction to his behavior caused the company for whom he worked to fire him. As reaction to the boycott, fans of the fast food outlet including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared August 1 “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and as a result, Chick-fil-A’s sales soared 12 percent, adding to $4.6 billion in revenue on the year.

Ideological competitors not in the same business have also had back-and-forth skirmishes using boycotts generated on-line. Right-wing Breitbart was the target of a campaign in 2016 where advertisers were pressured to drop doing business with them on the basis of differing views of “family values.” Kellogg pulled its advertising and Breitbart responded by asking readers to boycott Kellogg. Both are still standing. Like Starbucks, Fox News held its ground after a protest against host Laura Ingraham forced some advertisers to drop — and then re-establish — ad buys. Ingraham took a week off after making remarks about Florida high schooler David Hogg, and on her return, the show’s viewership jumped to 3 million viewers per night, more than her average before the controversy. Although the National Rifle Association is opaque about its actual membership numbers, the post-Parkland Shooting protests against the NRA may have backfired. The NRA has reportedly gained membership, and other pro-Second Amendment groups have reported as much as a 30 percent increase in membership.

Polonius was right

So where does this leave us? For one thing, we know that companies who decide to appropriate certain social justice themes need to be smart about it. Pepsi’s “kumbaya-hip” attempt was laughable at best, craven at worst. We also see that Keyboard Warriors who bang their sippy cups on the high chair and demand protests may not foresee the boomerang effect and may actually help develop support for the companies they are targeting.

To me, the most important lesson, though, is the wisdom shown by both Fox and Starbucks. Both have a social policy embedded in their “corporate values.” Starbucks responded to the current protest by promising to develop racial sensitivity programs and train their employees. Fox stated that they will not allow advertising to dictate content or be used as a censorship tool. Most importantly, despite both companies and their “tribes” being worlds apart in viewpoint, they each held their ground and stuck by their policy/values. That’s free speech at work.

Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.