How should my brand respond to the Facebook advertising boycott?
by: Amy Blasco and Lisa Campolmi
Verdin answers some important questions about the #StopHateForProfit controversy
That was a major trending hashtag on social media last month and the rallying cry of a recent campaign launched by a group of nonprofit and political organizations calling on brands to boycott Facebook advertising in July.
Launched by the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press and others, Stop Hate for Profit claims that Facebook has repeatedly failed to address the spread of misinformation and hate speech on its platforms. In response, hundreds of brands, including such big names as Starbucks, Microsoft and Levi Strauss, committed to halting advertising with the social media giant and its sister platform, Instagram, in July and beyond.
According to The New York Times, more than 1,000 companies participated in the boycott, and nine of Facebook’s top 100 spenders cut their advertising budgets from $26.2 million to $507,500. However, many of the companies that stayed away from Facebook said they plan to return because they are mom-and-pop businesses and individuals that depend on the platform for promotion.
Approximately 99 percent of Facebook’s $70 billion yearly revenue comes from advertising, but the vast majority of those ads are placed by smaller companies. This has caused critics of the boycott to say that the movement is ultimately hurting small businesses, nonprofits and influencers more than the social media giant itself.
“But what could really hurt Facebook is the long-term effect of its perceived reputation and the association with being viewed as a publisher of ‘hate speech’ and other inappropriate content,” Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, the executive vice president of the public opinion analysis company RepTrak, wrote in a post last month.
The Stop Hate For Profit movement did spur Facebook to release the findings of a two-year audit examining the company’s policies regarding free speech versus civil rights, data privacy and more. And the boycott has raised numerous questions for brands that use Facebook and Instagram, arguably the two most popular social media platforms for engaging with customers.
Many brands, including some Verdin clients, are asking how to navigate the ongoing controversy and its impact on the platforms. To help local leaders make the right decision for their company or organization, here’s a breakdown of the boycott and some answers to important questions.
How did the Stop Hate For Profit controversy start?
The boycott is the most recent in a long list of controversies surrounding Facebook since its founding in the mid-2000s involving allegations of everything from voter rights suppression to psychological experiments on unconsenting users to contributing to violence against journalists and minorities in Myanmar.
Civil rights watchdogs, including Stop Hate For Profit members, have been calling on Facebook to adjust its policies for years. Specifically, there have been concerns about Facebook’s lack of action to prevent white supremacist groups from using the platform as a recruitment and organizational tool.
This most recent controversy started in late May when President Donald Trump vowed on social media to stop vandalism and violence following Black Lives Matter protests, writing, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter labeled the post with a violation but Facebook did not. Hundreds of Facebook employees later staged a virtual walkout in protest.
What is Facebook’s official response to Stop Hate For Profit’s allegations?
On June 26, Zuckerberg posted on his official Facebook account that the company is committed to reviewing its policies ahead of the 2020 elections and shared some new rules to crack down on voter suppression and hate speech. Some of these changes include launching a voting information center to “provide authoritative information about voting” during the COVID-19 pandemic and removing false claims about polling conditions.
The post also said Facebook will prohibit a wider category of hateful content in ads and start restricting content that incites violence or suppresses voting. “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,” Zuckerberg wrote.
In a blog post on July 1, Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications, argued that Facebook does not benefit from hate and that it’s the job of social media platforms like Facebook to hold up a mirror to society, showing them “everything that is good, bad and ugly.”
“When we find hateful posts on Facebook and Instagram, we take a zero tolerance approach and remove them,” Clegg said. “When content falls short of being classified as hate speech—or of our other policies aimed at preventing harm or voter suppression—we err on the side of free expression because, ultimately, the best way to counter hurtful, divisive, offensive speech, is more speech. Exposing it to sunlight is better than hiding it in the shadows.”
However, a leader for Stop Hate For Profit told the Columbia Journalism Review Facebook isn’t doing enough to alter its advertising algorithms: “[Facebook’s] algorithms still drive people to hate groups and hateful content. Facebook makes money by keeping people on the site, and hateful content is exactly the type of stuff that keeps people glued to their screens,” Free Press executive Jessica Gonzalez said.
What did the Facebook audit say?
In 2018, at the behest of civil rights groups and some members of Congress, Facebook commissioned an audit of its policies and operating practices in regards to hate speech, data collection and other legal matters.
That report, published on July 8 of this year, documented what researchers called a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” in Facebook’s handling of these issues.
“While the audit process has been meaningful and has led to some significant improvements in the platform,” the head auditor wrote, “we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real-world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights.”
The auditors were particularly critical of Facebook for failing to remove incendiary posts from President Trump. According to the report, "One post allowed the propagation of hate/violent speech and two facilitated voter suppression. In all three cases Facebook asserted that the posts did not violate its Community Standards." The auditors concluded that the company's decision not to remove these posts is "deeply troubling."
Is Facebook the only social media platform facing criticism?
No. Many other platforms have had their fair share of issues. For example, Twitter started making changes to its policies last year after an NYU study found a correlation between the number of racist tweets and the amount of racially motivated hate crimes reported in 100 cities across the United States.
More recently ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has come under fire for allegedly helping the Communist Party censor and surveil Muslims in Xinjiang. And last month an iPhone user in New York filed a class action lawsuit against LinkedIn for allegedly collecting and reading clipboard data from their users’ OS and macOS devices.
How should my brand respond?
Many brands have spent years building up their social media followers and are experiencing anxiety about the best way to address this challenge. A few questions may help you identify the best path for your brand or organization:
- Does your brand traditionally touch on any political or social issues in your normal posting? Could you see your branding discussing this topic in posts with your followers? Some brands are using this situation to inform and share their opinions on a variety of social issues.
- Do you use Facebook just as a way to engage your followers or do you also use it as a paid advertising platform? Some brands and advertisers are choosing to continue to use the platform to stay in touch with their followers, but limiting their advertising investment until after the November election or more information comes to light.
- Do you personally believe that using the platform sends a message to followers regarding your stand on political issues? Some brands feel their mere presence on the platform endorses Facebook and its decisions as a company. Others believe their continued participation on the platform can help change the environment and improve the level of sharing and communication. It is a choice you must make for your brand and your image.
- How important is social media to your brand and your customers or clients? Google Analytics offers a great way to see how much of your brand’s website traffic is referred through social media. Are you aware of this percentage? Knowing it can help you identify the possible risks of reducing your visibility on the platform.
- Do you have alternative ways to reach your customer base? Can you shift to another platform easily to reach your audience?
Ultimately each organization must make the hard choice regarding participation in these platforms. For years Facebook has been one of the best investments for small businesses available. It may be time for all brands to realize the inevitable ebb and flow of the results of social media, and diversify their messaging in as many ways possible.
Verdin will continue to monitor the changes to Facebook and other social media platforms to keep clients informed and empowered to make the best marketing decisions for their brands. Stay up to date at www.verdinmarketing.com.