Future

700+ Advertisers Boycott Facebook Over Hate Speech. Can The Social Network Change?

The Stop Hate For Profit campaign has garnered massive support in only a few weeks. But analysts say their dent in the social network’s profits won’t be enough.

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears for a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Getty Images
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg appears for a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Getty Images

You won’t see Ben & Jerry’s or Legos ads on Facebook in July.

These companies join more than 700 others that have said they will halt advertising on Facebook for at least a month starting July 1, according to an Anti-Defamation League spokesperson. The boycott is a part of the Stop Hate For Profit campaign and calls on Facebook to better handle hate speech and misinformation on its platform. 

A coalition of civil rights groups, including the ADL, NAACP, and Color of Change among others, launched the Stop Hate For Profit campaign on June 17. 

“The social media company is amplifying the messages of white supremacists, permitting incitement to violence, and is failing to disrupt bad actors using the platform to do harm,” the group said in a press release. 

Some of the brands participating in the boycott, such as consumer mega-corporation Unilever, have said they’ll pause advertisements on all social media, not just Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram. Unilever said it’ll halt all such advertisements until the end of 2020 in part because of a “polarized election period in the U.S.” 

Companies including Starbucks and Coca-Cola have pledged to a 30-day pause on Facebook advertisements, but didn’t officially endorse the Stop Hate For Profit campaign. 

Facebook’s ad dollars made up nearly 99% of the company’s $70 billion global revenue last year. But several experts and reports predict that the month-long boycott will hardly affect Facebook’s bottom line. Those observers have argued that most of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from small and medium-sized businesses, and that a boycott would need to involve thousands of advertisers to be effective.

A CNN business analysis concluded that most of Facebook’s top 100 advertisers, including Walmart and American Express, are not participating in the boycott. One Wall Street firm said the boycott will impact less than 5% of Facebook’s overall revenue. 

Since the boycott was announced, Facebook has tried to placate some of its critics with policy updates. On June 26, Zuckerberg said the company would restrict ads that claim people of a certain race and ethnicity “are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others.” He also announced that Facebook would affix “newsworthy” labels to posts that the company would otherwise take down, marking a departure from its previously intransigent stance on labeling objectionable content that it says has news value. This policy could affect politicians’ and world leaders’ posts more consequentially than the company’s actions have in the past.

In May, Facebook came under intense scrutiny for not taking action on a post by President Trump that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The post was in reference to nationwide unrest after the police killing of George Floyd. Twitter, on the other hand, labeled Trump’s post with the same language, saying the tweet violated the platform’s rules on “glorifying violence.” 

The Stop Hate For Profit coalition said on June 29 that Facebook’s recently announced policy changes are insufficient. 

“Businesses did something incredible last week: they got Facebook’s attention,” the coalition said. “Sadly, none of these initial steps will make a significant dent in the persistent hate and racism so prevalent on the largest social media platform on the planet. That’s why we need to keep up the pressure.”

The coalition directed participating companies to ask Facebook 10 questions, such as whether the company will hire executives with civil rights expertise to evaluate its products and if the company will remove public and private groups “dedicated to hate or violent conspiracies.” 

On July 1, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, wrote in AdAge that the company “does not profit from hate.” Clegg said the company invests billions of dollars in “people and technology to keep [the] platform safe.” The VP also said that in the first quarter of 2020, the company ”took action against” 9.6 million pieces of content. But Clegg acknowledged that with 100 billion messages being sent on the platform every day, some objectionable content falls through the cracks. He used a similar defense during a June 28 appearance on CNN, to which NYT opinion writer Charlie Warzel responded in a July 1 piece. 

“Mr. Clegg’s defense is also an admission: Facebook is too big to govern responsibly,” Warzel wrote. “There will always be more work to do because Facebook’s design will always produce more hate than anyone could monitor. How do you reform that? You can’t.”

In private, Zuckerberg is reportedly unmoved by the ad boycott. Reporting from The Information revealed that the CEO told Facebook staff that the company will not change any policies “because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue.”

“I tend to think that if someone goes out there and threatens you to do something, that actually kind of puts you in a box where in some ways it’s even harder to do what they want because now it looks like you’re capitulating, and that sets up bad long-term incentives for others to do that [to you] as well,” Zuckerberg reportedly said in private remarks on June 26. 

Zuckerberg will meet with the boycott’s organizers next week, according to Reuters

While Joe Biden’s campaign has aggressively pressed Facebook on content policies — most recently about the company’s June 26 updates — it will not participate in the boycott. However, Bill Russo, a campaign spokesman, told CNN that the campaign “shares the concerns” of the companies that are participating. 
 
"But with less than five months until Election Day, we cannot afford to cede these platforms to Donald Trump and his lies,” Russo said. “Our campaign will be present every day to get our message in front of every voter to ensure Trump doesn't get another four years."
Since April 2019, the Biden campaign has spent less than $27 million on Facebook ads.  

The Trump campaign, which has spent nearly $10 million more on Facebook ads than its rival campaign, will also not participate in the boycott.