As of Monday (8:30AM BST), Facebook’s stock has fallen by 8.3%. The social media giant is now facing an hour of reckoning, with some of the biggest companies pulling their ads for the month of July. The protest, engineered by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other civil rights organisations is an attempt to get social media to clean up their act when it comes to spreading hateful content.
Advertisers such as Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company and Verizon are just some of the biggest names joining the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign. While Facebook is not the only company hit by the protest, it is facing the biggest backlash after deciding against censoring Donald Trump on its platform. Some advertisers, like Uniliver will also boycott Instagram, Twitter and YouTube as part of the campaign.
The campaign is urging all companies to halt ad spending for July, in a bid to get social media companies to take more action when it comes to spreading misinformation and hate. On their website, the campaign specifically calls out Facebook for not doing enough. The campaign now has over 90 participants, with companies like Viber, Upwork, The North Face and Levi’s also joining in.
“It is clear that Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are no longer simply negligent, but in fact, complacent in the spread of misinformation, despite the irreversible damage to our democracy. Such actions will upend the integrity of our elections as we head into 2020. We will not stand for this,” Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP said in a press release on the ADL website.
The campaign is a direct response to Facebook’s decision against censoring Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” threat against the protests in Minneapolis. While Twitter labelled the tweet as ‘glorifying violence’, Facebook refused to take action, despite the post violating the company’s policy guidelines on violence.
On their Community Standards website, Facebook explicitly says “While we understand that people commonly express disdain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in non-serious ways, we remove language that incites or facilitates serious violence. We remove content, disable accounts and work with law enforcement when we believe that there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.”
The move stirred a lot of internal dissent, with Timothy Aveni (a software engineer) and Own Anderson (engineering manager) resigning from the company in protest. Hundreds of employees also took to social media to criticize Zuckerberg for his decision, and some even staged a virtual walkout. Zuckerberg defended Trump’s post, saying “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.” It didn’t help the cause though, as more employees, civil rights groups and media called out the company for enabling hate speech on its platform.
Call for Changes
On the website, the Stop Hate for Profit also lists out 10 changes under three topics – accountability, decency and support – it wants Facebook to make. “We wanted to provide clear steps that Facebook could take immediately that would result in real progress. None of these ideas are new, and we hope that Facebook is able to agree and implement the following over the next month,” the campaign says.
Facebook responded to the campaign by trying to argue it was in a difficult spot. “There are competing pressures every day when managing a platform,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Vox. “Our focus is to act on what is most important: removing hate speech and content that harms communities, while using our platform for efforts like providing authoritative information about registering to vote.”
“The Trump administration is demanding that we stop or reduce censoring content, that we fact-check less material. Civil rights groups and the Biden campaign are demanding we censor and/or fact-check more. Policymakers are just going to have to decide what rules they want for campaigns and for the role of the internet, particularly in times of electoral campaigns.”
Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president of global affairs and communications
The statements haven’t helped the company though, with more and more advertisers piling on the pressure. In what can only be seen as a move to appeal to its partners, on 26 June Facebook announced that it would ban ads that encourage racial division. The policy will be applicable only to paid promotional content, but at least it’s a start. It is part of a whole host of changes announced by Zuckerberg in a Facebook Town Hall ahead of the 2020 Presidential elections.
In a post, Zuckerberg also said “Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we will take that content down. Similarly, there are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies I’m announcing here today.” While it is unclear if this new policy is a result of the fallout from Trump’s post, it is good to see Facebook taking some steps to clean up its act.
With nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue, it is unlikely that the campaign will do much to harm Facebook’s bottom line. Facebook’s size and targeting ability don’t give advertisers a lot of choice, so it’s unlikely that they will stay away for long.
Much of Facebook’s ad revenue comes from small and medium-sized businesses, and the largest spending brands Home Depot, Walmart, Microsoft, AT&T and Disney have so far refused to join the campaign. So it doesn’t seem like Facebook will be hurt too badly. That said, we are in unprecedented times, and if companies decide to boycott ads for longer periods of time (Unilever has committed to suspending ads for the rest of 2020), Facebook could be in real trouble.
Facebook’s Trump Challenge
The challenge, according to some experts, will be forcing Zuckerberg to feel the pressure. Unlike other companies, the CEO exercises control over Facebook and cannot be removed by shareholders. And with his close ties to the president, Zuckerberg will be less keen than Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to act against Trump.
This relationship is the foundation of Facebook’s policies. The company has long held a tradition of leaving up violent and racist posts by world leaders in the name of ‘newsworthiness’. That policy though, is being put to the ultimate test by Trump. Twitter has introduced labels, such as “manipulated media” and “glorifying violence” in a bid to limit Trump’s ability to spread hate online. Snapchat also said it would no longer promote Trump’s account on its Discover section. But so far, Facebook has yet to label, censor or take down a single Trump post.
Until Zuckerberg himself decides to change the limits of free expression on his platform, Facebook may simply lose brands until only those that don’t object to the company’s conduct or who cannot survive without the platform’s reach are left, Laura Martin, an industry analyst at Needham & Co told CNN. In that kind of situation, there’s no way Zuckerberg loses, and by extension Trump.
There is hope, however, that things will change. The Democrats have proposed a bill that would limit political ad targeting. There’s also bipartisan support for legislation that would regulate companies like Facebook. If nothing else, the fact that Biden is leading in most national polls should scare Zuckerberg into action. The winds are after all changing direction, it is time for the boat to sail accordingly.
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