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Explained: Why US corporates like Unilever and Verizon are pulling ads from Facebook

Facebook’s recent policy tweaks did little to suppress the growing revolt among advertisers worldwide, who have criticised the company for allegedly failing to contain the rampant spread of hate speech and misinformation.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Margao, New Delhi | Updated: June 30, 2020 9:04:59 am
Facebook ads, unilever pulls ads from facebook, Verizon facebook ad, mark zuckerberg, Facebook unilever, stop hate for profit movement, us anti racism protests, indian express explained Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Reuters Photo/File)

Amidst a growing pressure campaign led by some of the world’s most prominent corporates to boycott advertising on Facebook, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social media platform was tightening its content moderation policies to better tackle hate speech and misinformation online.

Zuckerberg’s announcement, streamed live on Facebook on Friday afternoon, came less than an hour after global consumer goods giant Unilever added its name to the list of nearly 100 companies that had pulled their advertising dollars from the social network this past week.

Facebook’s recent policy tweaks did little to suppress the growing revolt among advertisers worldwide, who have criticised the company for allegedly failing to contain the rampant spread of false information and incendiary content on the platform.

This became apparent when later that day, Japanese carmaker Honda Motor Co. and US chocolate manufacturer Hersheys Company joined the global ad boycott campaign ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ — started by several US-based civil rights groups this month.

Coca-Cola Co., too, announced its decision to pause ads on all social media platforms, including Facebook, for at least 30 days. However, the beverage giant told Adweek that its decision was independent of the ongoing boycott campaign.

“We will take this time to reassess our advertising standards and policies to determine whether revisions are needed internally, and what more we should expect of our social media partners to rid the platforms of hate, violence and inappropriate content. We will let them know we expect greater accountability, action and transparency from them,” a statement from the company’s CEO James Quincey read.

How the Facebook ad boycott campaign gained momentum

In the wake of nationwide anti-racism protests sparked by the custodial killing of unarmed African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, a number of prominent civil rights groups in the United States came together to urge businesses — big and small — to pull their ads from Facebook and Instagram. This movement came to be known as the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign.

The coalition — comprising Color of Change, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Sleeping Giants, Free Press, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Common Sense Media — accused Facebook of doing little to contain the spread of racist content online.

“(Facebook) allowed incitement to violence against protesters fighting for racial justice in America in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many others,” a statement on the campaign’s website reads.

“99% of Facebook’s $70 billion is made through advertising. Who will advertisers stand with? Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence,” it says, urging businesses to pull their ads from the platform.

In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, the organisers of the campaign fear that a highly polarised audience on social media could increase the potential for spreading misinformation and discriminatory content.

The campaign gained significant steam with major brand names like US ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s, movie distributor Magnolia Pictures, and outdoor apparel brand Northface joining the league of businesses boycotting ads on Facebook. However, it was when telecom giant Verizon announced that it was suspending advertising on the social media site that the debate about Facebook’s content moderation policy really began to take centre stage.

“We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with we’ve done with YouTube and other partners,” John Nitti, Chief Media Officer for Verizon, told CNN.

Verizon’s announcement came after an open letter was sent by ADL to Facebook advertisers, which cited an instance where the wireless carried an ad alongside a post which promoted “hateful and antisemitic rhetoric”.

With big household names like Unilever, Verizon, and Levis reevaluating its relationship with the social media platform and major advertising agencies urging its clients to join the protest, the campaign hopes that Facebook will respond by committing to changing its policies and creating a safe, non-discriminatory online experience for its millions of users.

The campaign’s organisers have released a list of recommendations for Facebook to improve its content moderation policy. These include suggestions like: Provide more support to people who are targets of racism, antisemitism and hate; Stop generating ad revenue from misinformation and harmful content; and Increase Safety in Private Groups on Facebook.

Facebook’s response

Prior to Zuckerberg’s public address Friday, Facebook had reached out to over 200 of its advertisers and held a conference call to inform them that they were working towards narrowing what they called a “trust deficit”.

In his 11-minute livestream Friday, Zuckerberg announced a number of initiatives that his company will soon be undertaking to quell growing concerns about hate speech. “I am committed to making sure Facebook remains a place where people can use their voice to discuss important issues,” Zuckerberg said. “But I also stand against hate or anything that incites violence or suppresses voting, and we’re committed to removing that content too, no matter where it comes from.”

He stated that both Instagram and Facebook will up its efforts to protect the interests of marginalised groups and minorities — immigrants, migrants, refugees, among others. Additionally, he said the company would not necessarily take down posts that may violate its policies, but will instead begin to label them.

Zuckerberg stressed that posts that “may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote” will be taken down regardless of who has shared it or whether it is newsworthy. Facebook will also introduce a link to its voting information centre on posts which mention voting — including those shared by politicians.

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Facebook has been facing mounting pressure ever since the platform chose not to take down a controversial post shared by US President Donald Trump about the nationwide anti-racism protests. In his tweet, Trump’s post allegedly threatened the use of force against demonstrators who had gathered to protest Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. The companies’ decision sparked widespread outrage and public condemnation. Hundreds of disgruntled Facebook employees even staged a ‘virtual walk-out’ to express their dissatisfaction.

The campaign’s impact on Facebook

With advertising forming the foundation of Facebook’s annual revenue of roughly $70 billion, experts have said that the recent spate of companies withdrawing their ads from the platform could pose a significant threat to the business.

Soon after Unilever announced that it would stop spending ad revenue on Facebook, the social media platform’s shares plummeted by 8.3% — the biggest drop it has seen in three months. Last year, the consumer good giant poured in more than $42 million into the platform, according to a report by CNN. Verizon too, spent around $2 million on Facebook advertising, in the last month alone, CNBC reported.

The ongoing ad boycott campaign is not the first instance of protest against the social media platform in the recent past. Several attempts have been made, including the #deletefacebook trend in early 2018, to challenge Facebook’s handling of user data as well as its content regulation policies. However, the companies’ revenue and growth has never been seriously impacted by these protests, a Bloomberg report points out.

The organisers of the boycott campaign claim that hurting Facebook financially is not their sole aim. Civil rights group Sleeping Giants, in a tweet shared Friday, wrote: “Remember that the #StopHateForProfit campaign is not about damaging Facebook’s bottom line, it’s about a broader reckoning around the platform’s lack of moderation of hate and disinformation.”

Many have drawn parallels with a similar boycott campaign against YouTube in 2017. Then too, several big corporations had pulled their ad dollars over concerns that the platform’s algorithm placed their ads next to hate speech. However, most advertisers returned to YouTube soon after, Forbes reported.

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