Companies boycott Facebook ads over hate speech policy

A growing list of corporations, including some of the world’s best-known brands, have signed up to a campaign aiming to hold Facebook to account for allowing hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign was launched on June 17th in the wake of the global anti-racism protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. It is led by a coalition of US civil rights and non-profit organisations including ADL, Color of Change, Common Sense, Free Press, LULAC, Mozilla, NAACP, National Hispanic Media Center, and Sleeping Giants.

The campaign is asking businesses to withhold all paid advertising from Facebook and the other platforms it owns (including Instagram and WhatsApp) for the month of July.

More than 500 companies are reported to be participating in the boycott, with still more pausing advertising on Facebook despite not officially signing up to the campaign. North Face was the first big brand to join the boycott on July 19, and the list now includes Unilever, Adidas, Ford, Levi's and Volkswagen.

Why are campaigners targeting Facebook?

Campaigners and advertisers have long called for social media companies to take greater responsibility for their role in allowing harmful misinformation and hateful ideologies to spread. These criticisms have intensified in recent times, in part due to the social media activities of Donald Trump, whose repeated fallacious and inflammatory posts have been allowed to influence millions of followers. 

In May this year, Trump was widely condemned for inciting violence with his posts on social media in response to the George Floyd protests, including the statement  “when the looting starts the shooting starts”.

Twitter acted to hide the comment for 'glorifying violence' and violating its policies. However, when the identical statement was posted on its Facebook, it was allowed to remain. CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated “I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves…”. This was despite Zuckerberg having testified before congress in October that any content calling for violence “including [by] a politician” would be taken down.

Trump’s words proved the catalyst for the campaign, but the problems with Facebook’s approach to moderating harmful content go far beyond the president’s posts. 

Facebook uses algorithms to recommend pages and groups to individual users, and groups peddling hate and extremism are frequently promoted in this way: Facebook’s own study found that 64% of the users in extremist German groups joined due to the platform’s recommendations.

The propagation of hate speech on the platform has already had devastating real world consequences. A United Nations report says the use of Facebook played a “determining role” in the country’s military spreading hateful propaganda against Myanmar’s Rohingya, where a genocidal campaign has seen tens of thousands die and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The impact on individuals is also clear. A 2020 survey of American social media users carried out by Anti-Defamation League found that 42 percent of daily Facebook users experienced harassment on the platform. It also recorded an alarming increase in religion-based and race-based harassment across all social media platforms between 2019 and 2020.

How other platforms are responding

Against this backdrop, other social media companies have taken steps in the right direction. Reddit has banned a number of its communities (known as subreddits), including the largest pro-Trump group, following an update to its policy against identity-based hatred

YouTube has removed the accounts of white supremacists Richard Spencer and David Duke, and on Twitch, Trump was temporarily banned after several of his speeches were flagged as inciting racial hatred. 

Facebook, meanwhile, has appeared more resistant to applying greater content moderation, with Zuckerberg suggesting such actions made companies ‘arbiters of truth’.

What are the demands?

Stop Hate for Profit outlines ten actions for Facebook that it says would result in ‘real progress’. The demands set out a proposal for how Facebook could restructure its approach to dealing with hate speech and misinformation, based on concepts of Accountability, Decency and Support.

The boycott against Facebook

By withdrawing ads, the boycott aims to hit Facebook financially and force the company to take action. In 2019, 98.5 percent of Facebook’s 70 billion dollar revenue was generated through advertising, and it has been suggested the boycott could cost the company up to $7.5 billion this year.

However, some have argued that Facebook also has a financial incentive to continue to allow hate speech, as inflammatory content can generate engagement, leading users to spend more time on the platform and therefore be exposed to more advertising.

Some companies, including Patagonia, Ford and Lego have pulled advertising worldwide, while others including Unilever have done so only in the US, but now face calls to expand the boycott internationally. Many of the companies involved have issued statements affirming a commitment to ‘diversity’ and calling for action from Facebook. The campaign also makes clear that “hate on Facebook is not good for advertisers”. Several companies have expressed their concerns about their adverts appearing alongside divisive content and how that could affect their image.

Commentators have pointed out that some companies that have signed up may be seeking to repair their own previously damaged reputations regarding social justice and racism; for example, Adidas has recently come under fire from its own staff over its approach to tackling discrimination in the workplace.

How has Facebook responded?

Facebook has made some concessions in response to the boycott - such as applying their hate policy to ads, but not in groups and posts. It also took steps to ban the far-right extremist ‘Boogaloo’ network from the platform.

The campaign organisers say that  Facebook’s responses are insufficient, and have renewed their call for the ‘ten recommended steps’ to be taken. 

However, in a leaked transcript, Zuckerberg reportedly told Facebook staff he expected the advertisers to return ‘soon enough’ and implied that he saw the boycott as a PR issue rather than a serious threat to its revenue.

Some companies participating in the boycott have voiced their dissatisfaction with Facebook's response. Clothing company Patagonia stated “Facebook can and must do more to stop promoting hate and dangerous misinformation”, while subscriptions platform Patreon stated that until Zuckerberg changed his stance “we’re not going to feel comfortable returning to the platform”.

How do consumers get involved?

The boycott aims to have an instant impact by targeting Facebook’s core source of revenue, advertising sales businesses. However, Stop Hate for Profit also suggests ways that consumers can support the boycott through:

  • Signing its online petition to demand Facebook adopt the recommendations
  • Urging businesses to stop spending on Facebook advertising in July (the campaign welcomes new businesses joining)

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