It started with an apology on Twitter. And not just an apology: A full-on acknowledgment of improper and counter-revolutionary thoughts, of the kind that Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Guards used to extract from their victims.

It came from Paperchase, a popular British stationery retailer. You’ll find one on pretty much any UK high street, selling pens and birthday cards and paperclips. Anyway, here is what it said.

“We’ve listened to you about this weekend’s newspaper promotion. We now know we were wrong to do this – we’re truly sorry and we won’t ever do it again. Thanks for telling us what you really think, and we apologise if we have let you down on this one. Lesson learnt.”

What atrocity had Paperchase committed? Had its promotion featured some catastrophically poor joke involving Hitler and genocide? Had it announced that, from now on, it would hire only straight, white, male employees? Had it said something nice about President Trump?

Nope. It turned out that the company’s sin was to have placed its promotion, in the form of a wrap, in the Daily Mail, arguably Britain’s most successful newspaper.

Now, the Daily Mail is not to everyone’s taste. It is unapologetically patriotic. It wants lower taxes, secure borders, strong families. It campaigned for a Leave vote in last year’s referendum. But these are hardly fringe causes. In a brutal newspaper market, the Mail remains both popular and profitable. Its print edition is the second-best selling in the UK, and its online edition is the most visited news website in the world.

It has, though, fallen foul of a Leftist campaign group called Stop Funding Hate, which targets companies that advertise in right-leaning newspapers — in, I should stress, perfectly conventional right-leaning newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Sun. These are not fringe publications with links to extremist political parties. They are absolutely in the mainstream. Labour MPs and ministers gladly write articles in them when they get the chance. Indeed, it turns out that the founder of Stop Funding Hate has himself received a £1000 fee from the Daily Mail.

As I’ve observed in this column before, virtue-signaling is essentially competitive. Attacking a tiny white supremacist magazine would be too easy, because hardly anyone would spring to its defense. No, if you really want kudos in the eyes of your peers, attack the paper that your grandma reads. You can thereby advertise to the world that you’re better than she is: kinder, more aware, more sensitive. The more mainstream your target, the more you get to flaunt your Leftist purity. It’s a kind of conspicuous consumption.

Incredibly, these bullying tactics work. Paperchase was unusual only in knocking its head to the dust in public as the Red Guards looked on. Other well-known brands have groveled more quietly. Among the companies that have pulled advertising from the anathematized newspapers are Specsavers and Lego.

In response to what? When Paperchase issued its degrading mea culpa, the campaign against it amounted to 850 Tweets and 150 negative Facebook comments. Did some junior employee in the public relations department over-react? Or was it a clever marketing strategy, based on the insight that Twitter is small and unrepresentative, and that an apology there wouldn’t be seen by most customers? After all, Paperchase had apparently not scheduled any more advertisements in the Mail. Perhaps it calculated that it could gain credit by presenting its decision to the Left-leaning Twittersphere as a cuddly and ethical one.

If so, it miscalculated. There has now been a far larger and more visible backlash as free-speech supporters and conservatives threaten to boycott the chain. I can see their point. And yet, I can’t help feeling melancholy rather than outraged. Both high street shops and newspapers are seeing their revenues drop as our habits change. Advertising these days is overwhelmingly placed online, and usually by retailers that need little physical presence in our towns. Neither Paperchase nor the Daily Mail is the corporate giant that Stop Funding Hate supporters seem to imagine.

Indeed, to grasp the political weakness of such businesses — almost all businesses, come to that — look at how easily spooked they are by tiny cells of far-Left agitators. Confronted with unreasoned criticism, they tend to react with all the grace of elephants cornered by mice.

No amount of apologizing, PR stunts, or corporate social responsibility campaigns will appease people whose fundamental premise is that private property is theft and the market system is reprehensible. Get off your knees, gentlemen.

Daniel Hannan, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a British member of the European Parliament.