Will Facebook's Largest Advertiser Boycott Finally Force Them to Move Beyond Rhetoric?

Under mounting pressure from an advertiser boycott, Facebook is reassessing its content moderation practices following recent inflammatory comments published by President Donald Trump and other disinformation groups as protests against police brutality intensify, according to a report from The Verge

The #StopHateForProfit campaign, organized by powerful civil rights institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League, Color for Change, Common Sense and the NAACP, called on Facebook’s 90+ advertising partners to pull their marketing support from the platform, joined by mega-corporations such as Magnolia Pictures, Ben & Jerry’s, Verizon, Eddie Bauer, and Unilever. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the coalition began to “stand in solidarity with our most deeply held American values of freedom, equality, and justice and not advertise on Facebook’s services in July”, as stated in their press release to The Guardian.

At the heart of the protest is President Trump, whose posts have been dealt with differently by social media giants Twitter and Facebook. Most recently, a tweet that from the president was declared “abusive” by Twitter, yet a similar post on Facebook was left up untouched. 

“There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President,” the president tweeted last Tuesday. “If they try they will be met with serious force!”. Hours later, Twitter blocked the post with a warning that “This tweet violated the Twitter Rules about abusive behavior”. On Facebook, however, no such warning exists and continued to gain over 200,000 interactions from users alongside standard advertising.

“We have strict content policies in place and have zero-tolerance when they are breached, we take action,” said John Nitti, Verizon’s chief media officer who provided a statement to CNBC. “We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners.” According to CNBC analytics, Verizon spent nearly $1.5 million on Facebook and $500,000 on Instagram in the months of May and June, making it one of the top advertisers in the company’s bottom line. Since the boycott, Facebook stock reportedly dropped by over 7% within the span of a week. 

Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of its Global Business Group, released a counter-statement to The Verge declaring the platform is “having ongoing conversations” with advertisers about how to be a “force for good” in their content administration. “We respect any brand’s decision and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organizations are about how, together, we can be a force for good.” 

But what does Facebook actually consider to be a ‘force for good’? 

After all, we’re just a month apart from Facebook being successfully sued for $52 million by their own admin workers over their horrific work conditions, subjecting 11,000 contractors to a toxic culture of unpredictable firings, unsupervised exposure to traumatic material, rampant episodes of sexual deviancy and open-carried firearms within their facilities, all without so much as having a therapist on staff. Many employees reported suffering from symptoms of PTSD and even a heart attack-induced death as the result of working for Facebook. 

Whereas these moderators never even saw CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in the flesh, the same can’t be said of activist groups such as Color of Change, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, each of which sent representatives to a meeting with Facebook executives earlier this year. Vanita Gupta, Sherrilyn Ifill, and Rashad Robison expressed their frustrations with Facebook in the following statement: “[Zuckerberg] did not demonstrate an understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters. Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook.”

Since the meeting, the coalition has published a series of serious demands for how exactly Facebook can become this so-called ‘force for good’, expecting the platform to “go beyond taking down Trump’s posts” by instead removing “all ads from content labeled as misinformation or hate”, as outlined in an ADL open letter. “When it comes to dealing with rampant hate and harassment, the platform continues to come up short. What are they doing with $70 billion in revenue and $17 billion in profit?” the letter reads. “Their hate speech, incitement, and misinformation policies are inequitable. Their harassment victim services are inadequate. Their advertising placement’s proximity to hateful content is haphazard. And their ‘civil rights’ audit transparency reports aren’t helpful to the civil rights community.”

This puts advertisers in a difficult position as Facebook is definitionally a monopoly force. As I’ve explained in the past, the site holds a 75% market share across the entire social media sector and a combined base of 2.5 billion users across its apps, despite their previous scandals. A boycott of this type is unprecedented but one has to wonder just how long it can be kept up in the current climate. 

As noted by Jason Dille, an overseer for over 20 clients at the ad agency Chemistry, putting a halt on Facebook ads, especially during a pandemic, is quite a business risk. “Some of my clients are just starting to come back,” Dille said. “If they don’t create sales and get business to turn around, they’re going to go under. Facebook is a double-edged sword. You don’t want to support it, but you have to use it in order to reach a large audience.”

The more cynical among us, however, don’t expect even the most basic of changes to be made, predicting another round of the platitude-heavy strategy we’ve seen all too many times before. Just consider the amount of lengthy public statements Zuckerberg has given on Facebook’s company philosophies and potential new policies, few of which are ever actually brought to the public, such as the proposed Facebook Supreme Court, a new arbitration body said to overrule Zuckerberg. It’s just the same old cycle of empty words buying public ignorance, and even advertisers aren’t buying it anymore. “Facebook is not committed to change,” said Joy Howard, chief marketing officer of the password manager app Dashlane. “They will only say what money makes them say. It’s time for us to put our money where their mouth is.”

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