Are We at Peak Boycott?

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Maybe you remember this one. A year and a half ago, two young black men were waiting for a friend before ordering coffee drinks at a Philadelphia Starbucks when staff accused them of loitering and asked them to leave. The men refused to go. The staff called the police, who showed up and arrested the two men. Cell phone footage quickly found its way to social media, where it became fodder for the outrage machine: Racial profiling at Starbucks would not be tolerated by the Left. Soon, Liberal Twitter and Facebook were called on to #BoycottStarbucks.

People didn’t actually boycott — and yet the boycott was successful. Huh? “[Boycotts] can be successful in terms of creating media attention and publicity to the cause,” said Brayden King, a business professor at Northwestern University. He notes that they can succeed even if they don’t actually change anyone’s behavior. “That’s typical of boycotts.” Starbucks was quick to respond because it didn’t want to suffer reputational damage. An apology, $200,000 toward a program for high-school entrepreneurs, and a corrective action: For one day, Starbucks locations across the country were closed to conduct an anti-bias training (which is widely known to do … nothing). But still. Success, on the part of the boycott’s organizers.

The Philadelphia fiasco wasn’t the first time Starbucks had been the subject of political ire. A year before, in April of 2017, Starbucks responded to Trump’s travel ban by promising to hire 10,000 refugees by 2022. The Right was most displeased with the company’s commitment, responding with a #BoycottStarbucks campaign online. Instead, according to the digital foot soldiers, the company should “Hire Americans.” (Starbucks had in fact already committed to hiring 10,000 veterans back in 2013, and they delivered on that promise.) After a few days the boycott calls quieted and, a month later, like a whack-a-mole, new boycott calls emerged from the same quarters, this time against Papa John’s.

The dominance of social media, coupled with an increasingly polarized populace has brought us to what feels like a boycott apex — I certainly can’t remember half the times hashtag boycott something-or-other has crossed my timelines. Just in the last year, there have been prominent calls for boycotts against the likes of Home Depot, In-N-Out, Wayfair, Bill Maher, the Disney film Mulan, and, ironically, Twitter itself (where most of these calls for boycott are made). Olive Garden was targeted for boycott last year for funding Trump’s reelection campaign even though they hadn’t done so. Our own president has tweeted in support of boycotting AT&T and Harley Davidson. But the vast majority of boycotts noiselessly disappear off our various political radars in a matter of days, if not hours. If I’m being honest, I don’t even really register most boycotts’ demands anymore. So, I wondered, how much power does the modern social-media boycott have?

It’s complicated, of course.

There are a few boycotts that serve as touchstones. The Boston Tea Party threw a bunch of British tea in the harbor to protest hefty taxes. The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s call for a boycott of South African goods and sports began in 1959 and reached critical mass in the early 1990s. The Montgomery Bus Boycott succeeded in ending segregation of the Alabama city’s transit system. These were dictionary definitions of boycott: a “withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest.”

In the social-media era, boycotts usually do not adhere to the traditional definition, though. “The average boycott isn’t changing behaviors,” said King, “but they’re creating a negative spotlight on the company and that creates a reputational threat.” King, who has conducted studies on the impact of boycotts, explained that boycotts actually tend to be ineffective at galvanizing action by consumers. In fact, even when people say they’re going to boycott, they probably won’t. But there is still power in the idea of a boycott.

As with so many other aspects of society, social media has changed everything. Ten years ago, King tells me, there was a general institutional reluctance to use social media for protest. No more. “The growing consensus is that social media is really good for expression and fills a major need humans have to be seen by others,” he said. “But once that need is fulfilled, it inoculates people.” That is to say, social media does help to publicize an issue, but it also makes it much harder to mobilize people out into the streets.

When you wade into the world of social-media boycotts, it quickly becomes apparent that there are two sides and that those two sides are extremely polarized: Left Twitter and Right Twitter (the same goes for Facebook). Nuance is thrown out the window in favor of the dramatic flare. After Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad began to make waves on the internet, some on Right Twitter called for a boycott of the company by advocating getting rid of Nike apparel. (One tweeter burned his shoes.) Hilariously, lists all of the companies the Right should boycott, and all of the companies they should support, or, “buycott.” The biggest threat to the Right, according to this site, is Netflix. It’s so dangerous, it’s listed in bold red font with the phrase “biggest threat to conservatives.” But when I try to find anything resembling an organization fighting these battles against specific companies in a coherent and ongoing way, I always come up empty. It seems these internet boycotts are flashes in the pan, a blip on our screens, there to remind us we should be pissed — and that we can be pissed without actually ever doing a thing.

But there is one that’s has had staying power. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — known as BDS. It’s a call to boycott Israeli goods and culture to make a political stand against the occupation of Palestine, inspired in part by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Whether you agree or disagree with the cause, its presence in the American political landscape has only grown since it began in 2005. In the last year alone, the New York Times has published 36 articles about BDS according to Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. In July, congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were barred by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from entering the country on a planned congressional trip to the occupied West Bank because of their stated support for the boycott. A series of bills have been introduced across the country that attempt to ban BDS. The boycott has emerged as one of the most third-rail issues in American politics. Just this month, President Trump signed an executive order expanding the definition of anti-Semitism that Palestinian statehood supporters view as a threat to their free speech.

Not coincidentally, BDS started a year after Facebook was available to college students across the country and has gained considerable traction since. “While I think that social media has been revolutionary as a tool for activists to take collective action, the states and corporations are getting in the game and understanding how to use the tool themselves,” Munayyer said, “and apply[ing] repressive techniques in a world where activists are using social media.”

When asked whether the boycott actually does anything to the Israeli economy, or if that is even the point, Munayyer pointed to the court of public opinion. “The U.S. is suddenly beginning to have conversations that absent these tactics would have never happened,” he said. “I think it has played a role to shift public opinion on this issue.” Representative Omar, who supports the movement, has also said publicly that she believes a two-state solution, a different end goal than the one state that BDS’ founder is fighting for. Days after being barred from Israel, the congresswoman introduced legislation along with Tlaib to reinforce Americans’ right to boycott.

Still, for the most part, the modern social-media boycott does not work in any traditionally intended way. Boycotts, generally speaking, have just become a variety of bad press. They’re “delete Uber today and use Lyft,” but then they’re “oh wait Peter Thiel invests in Lyft so back to Uber tomorrow.” We are in a frenetic political atmosphere, without much to anchor us, or much to drive us. And in the end we’re all going to Starbucks in a pinch or using the Israeli-made Waze to see why traffic is so bad on the BQE. And it’s probably always going to be like that.

Are We at Peak Boycott?