Inside the advertising boycott that has Facebook on the defensive
It’s also a behind-the-scenes triumph for a novel coalition of civil rights groups and other advocacy groups – the architects of the #StopHateForProfit campaign that many of the boycotting companies have joined.
Interviews with leaders of the nine coalition partners reveal how the groups developed a boycott idea in a matter of days, responded to George Floyd’s protests late this spring, and used public energy to unite several long-smoldering, frustrated efforts to contain Facebook Justify content. They urged private business leaders and, in some cases, embarrassed companies on social media to join the effort.
“[Facebook] is a breeding ground for racist hate groups, ”said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, one of the groups that made up the coalition. Regarding Zuckerberg, he said, “You can’t argue with the guy.”
In a short space of time, the coalition has become perhaps Facebook’s most formidable antagonist, though little else – not Congress, no European regulators, no public statements from celebrities that they are deleting their Facebook accounts – made a huge impact on the way the site works had. And their campaign could provide a blueprint for how activist groups can fight a modern tech giant: merging novel printing tactics with the weight of old civil rights groups.
Whether Facebook will really hit, be it financially or as a brand, remains to be seen. The company declined to comment on the article except after a statement made in response to the boycott in which Facebook said “invested”[s] Billions of dollars every year to keep our community safe and to work continuously[s] with outside experts to review and update our policy, ”and that it is taking steps to combat hatred. The statement added, “We know we have more work to do.” So far, however, the company has not made any major concessions. And while the share price has fallen sharply, Zuckerberg – who has long defended the platform as a free speech space – reportedly said advertisers would be back “soon enough”. Analysts also say Facebook can weather the storm; Most of the ads come from small and medium-sized buyers, not big boycott-making headlines, and Bloomberg researchers predicted Monday the boycotts could cost Facebook only $ 250 million in ad sales – a fraction of the company’s annual revenue $ 77 billion.
But a look at the origins and dynamics of StopHateForProfit suggests that the campaign has at least one insight that one often forgets about a tech giant with the Silicon Valley glitz of Facebook: At the end of the day, the social network is just an advertising medium , with 98 percent of its revenue coming from ads. And as with traditional print campaigns against TV stations or newspapers, the company has to be careful when it comes to getting to the advertisers.
While the boycott came together quickly its roots go back to the 2016 elections. Amid widespread outrage over the role Facebook played, it was lamented that Russians were using the site to exploit racist tensions in the United States. But the site didn’t just reinforce it, activists believed. It was a petri dish for racism and discrimination; the hatred grew. And since Facebook was largely unconcerned about the issue, the activists decided that they didn’t take the issue seriously.
In the months after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, civil rights groups and other social justice organizations began quietly comparing notes about their interactions with Facebook and Silicon Valley in general.
“The conversations started very informally just to gather information. But we learned that we were being played by Facebook and other big tech companies, ”says Jessica González, co-CEO of the left-wing media organization Free Press. “They had a very strategic appeasement strategy of giving us breadcrumbs, but in a way that made it look like they were doing such a great job, even though hate and disinformation were rampant on their website.”
Proponents were trying to figure out how to get Facebook and other tech companies to take their complaints more seriously. Campaigns to get users to stay away from the platform or to allow civil rights groups to warn companies of hateful activity have largely been spat out. In 2018, Facebook announced it would be undergoing an audit to better understand how it impacts color communities and other marginalized groups, led by Laura Murphy, a highly respected civil rights attorney. But a crucial five-week period last fall largely wiped out the goodwill that was left.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late September, Facebook’s director of politics and communications, Clegg, announced that the company was exempting politicians’ ads from its fact-checking process, arguing that the public should be able to see and verify what political leaders are doing say. Clegg told me in an interview at the time that it was a longstanding policy, but that “the purpose, I hope, was pretty clear: this is what we are going to do before 2020. These are our plans. “.”
Facebook’s critics were outraged both by what Clegg said – which, in their opinion, revealed that Facebook had failed to understand the story of American politicians who fueled racial divisions – and when he said it. Color of Change, founded after Hurricane Katrina to organize African Americans online, and other groups had worked for months putting together an event called Civil Rights x Tech with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer; it was scheduled for just two days after Clegg’s speech. At the summit, against the backdrop of towering brick walls and exposed plumbing in an event space in West Midtown Atlanta, Sandberg and Neil Potts, a Facebook public order director, were pressed for Clegg’s statement and proponents reassured, González told me.
Two weeks later, Facebook announced that Zuckerberg would give a speech at Georgetown University in which he would present his thoughts on the subject of “freedom of expression”. He and Clegg previewed speeches with some of the civil rights activists. Zuckerberg would double the time off for politicians while daring to link Facebook and the importance of free speech in U.S. civil rights history, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr.
“I warned him of the dangers,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Zuckerberg did it anyway, in a dramatic 37-minute speech on October 17 from Gaston Hall in Georgetown. After that, proponents concluded that the CEO believed, deep down in his bones, that his commitment to free expression – even if it made him fit with the most vicious tribes of American society – was right no matter what Sandberg in Atlanta did said. “[Sandberg] seems sincere. She is definitely good at her job. But the fact is, at the end of the day, the money goes to Zuckerberg and the board, ”González told me.