The world’s largest social network, Facebook, has regularly come in for criticism about its policy, and lack of action, on hate speech. With that anger deepening over recent weeks, there’s now a movement that taking aim at the company’s multibillion-dollar bottom line.

Criticism is now coming at Facebook from some of the biggest spenders on the platform. June 17 saw a collection of organizations battling for civil rights, such as the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, and Color of Change all raise their voices and ask companies to “hit pause on hate” by not advertising on Facebook for the whole of July. Most of the network’s income is from ads, note Queenie Wong for cnet, and its revenue was over $70 billion dollars last year alone.

“Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence,” states the Stop Hate for Profit website, the campaign site organizing the boycott.

Support has snowballed, with major brands picking up on the campaign and lending their support. Notable brands that are behind the campaign include the consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, The North Face, and Verizon, joined this week by Adidas, Ford, Volkswagen, The Clorox Company, Blue Bottle Coffee, Denny’s, Chobani, and Kind Snacks. 

“This definitely seems more widespread,” said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer’s principal analyst. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this level of marketer action around Facebook.”

Let’s dig into everything you need to know about the boycott of Facebook ads. 

What’s caused the campaign to start now?

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, says that his and other organizations that promote civil rights have been on the case with Facebook for years. They’ve been pushing the network to make the platform safer and they’ve just not acted quickly enough.

The 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, where millions of Muslims were murdered, raped and displaced, was fueled by hate speech on Facebook. The gunman who attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 livestreamed his killing spree on Facebook.

“To be frank, we’ve not yet seen enough meaningful change,” Greenblatt said.

The inertia of Facebook became even more noticeable following the killing of George Floyd in May this year. The 46-year-old back man was brutally killed by police in Minneapolis and the filmed incident sparked outrage and national and international protests about racial justice and police attitudes. Almost as soon as the news came to light, conspiracies and misinformation permeated the internet, including false accusations about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros being behind the protests. A lot of this cropped up in private or secret groups on Facebook, which aren’t so easy to moderate.

Further, Breitbart News – a far-right news site – has been included in Facebook’s list of “trusted” new sources, whilst the right-wing opinion and news website The Daily Caller is a fact-checking partner on the platform. Facebook has even been used to suppress voters and also to incite violence. 

When compared to Twitter, Facebook’s approach looks a lot more hands-off when it comes to politicians and what they have to say. It came under fire recently when it decided not to remove posts from President Trump about the recent protests, even though advocacy groups and people inside Facebook agreed that it could incite violence. The post remained because the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, didn’t go against any particular rule. In contrast, Twitter has been labeling Trump tweets such as ones where he made inaccurate claims about postal ballots. 

The campaign that stems from all of this is being characterized as a “30-day pause on adverts, instead of a boycott, says Greenblatt. The civil right organizations aim to work with Facebook to help it address the problems it’s dealing with, but the main point of the campaign is to show that there’s a “stakeholder imperative”, not just concern voiced through words alone.

What end result are the civil rights groups going for?

There are ten steps the Stop Hate for Profit campaign are working towards to have facebook address hate speech

These are:

  • Bring in C-suite level employees who have a background in civil rights to undertake a wholesale review of the rules surrounding discrimination, bias, and hate
  • Having independent, third-party audits to look at identity-based hate and misinformation, with results being published.
  • Letting businesses know if their paid-for content was featured next to content that was removed for breaking rules, and refunding companies if so. 
  • Hunting out and taking down groups that are about antisemitism, white supremacy, violent conspiracies, militias, vaccine misinformation, Holocaust denialism, and climate change denialism.
  • Changing policies to allow for better policing of hateful content. 
  • Not amplifying or promoting groups that tie to hate, misinformation, or conspiracies.
  • Design new methods that allow hateful content to be auto-flagged for human review when it’s found in groups
  • Remove exemptions for politicians on fact-checking, and take down misinformation surround voting rights, and ban calls for violence against other politicians (Facebook has already confirmed they’ll remove anything that tries to stop people from voting or incites violence, but the company’s interpretation of its own rules has been called into question).
  • Employ a team of experts to review reports of hate that are based on identity or flagged as harassing
  • Having direct contact points for people who face severe hate or harassment on Facebook.

Which companies have signed up to the campaign?

Some brands are worried about taking on Facebook, whereas others are taking the chance to voice their concerns and highlight their values about racial justice by joining the campaign. 

As of Wednesday morning, 530 businesses, organizations, and advertisers confirmed they’d be putting a hold on their Facebook ads, says Sleeping Giants, a campaign organizer. 

Participants include well-known brands such as Verizon, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Honda, The North Face, REI, the Hershey Company, Ben & Jerry’s, The Clorox Company, Adidas, Ford, Denny’s, Volkswagen, Microsoft, Blue Bottle Coffee, Chobani, Lululemon, Levi’s, Mozilla, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Eddie Bauer, JanSport, Dockers and Target.

What’s the response from Facebook?

Facebook says that hate speech isn’t allowed on the platform, but also recognizes that it must take more action in tackling the issue.

In just the first quarter of 2020, nearly 10 million posts were taken off Facebook for violating rules on hate speech, most being removed without the need for them to be reported. There’s a mix of real-lie reviewers and technological solutions that moderate content, but there’s a challenge with hate speech because it’s not easy to program an algorithm to understand cultural context. 

“Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram because they have good experiences — they don’t want to see hateful content, our advertisers don’t want to see it, and we don’t want to see it. There is no incentive for us to do anything but remove it,” said Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg in a statement on July 1. 

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, said on Friday last week that the company is going to start labeling content that’s newsworthy but goes against company policies and rules, whilst adverts that have hateful content will be monitored more closely. The labeling won’t go on content that suppresses voting or encourages people to violence; this content would come down even if were put up by politicians.

The changes have been noted as “small” by the organizers of Stop Hate for Profit. Nothing in the recommendations from the civil rights groups is included in the proposals. 

When questioned, a spokesperson for Facebook declined to answer whether the campaign recommendations were under active consideration.

“We respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organizations are about how, together, we can be a force for good,” came the response from Carolyn Everson, who has oversight of Facebook global marketing, in a statement released on Thursday.

Along with Facebook’s director of public policy Neil Potts, Everson has been in meetings all week with advertisers, according to Reuters, whilst Zuckerberg himself is planning on talking with the boycott organizers.

Will my newsfeed look different because of the boycott? 

Things aren’t going to look a whole lot different unless you’re a customer of the brands that have specifically pulled their adverts for the month. The ads you get shown by Facebook depends on data about the pages you and your network like and the businesses you interact with. Whenever you hand over your email or phone number to a business, you can end up on a customer list that can go back to your profile, too. There are over eight million advertisers on Facebook, so there’ll be no shortage of other adverts that you’ll see instead.

Are there any other networks being targeted? Why only Facebook? 

Criticism has been leveled at other social networks, not only Facebook, for their actions on hate speech. Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit have all been called out for the same issues.

Facebook has been the primary target of this particular campaign because of its size – it’s the largest social network in the world, with more than 2.6 billion monthly users. It’s also the owner of Instagram and WhatsApp.

There’s been calls for Twitter to do more to ban white supremacists from the site, something which Facebook announced back in March 2019. It has taken some action, adding labels to tweets, including those from Trump, that could be seen as inciting violence, passing on misinformation, or those that could contain “manipulated media”. On Facebook’s part, they work with third-party fact-checking organizations and add notices to content that’s inaccurate, however, posts and adverts from politicians don’t go to these fact-checkers because it claims politicians already face heavy scrutiny. 

Reddit banned a highly popular pro-Trump feed on Monday and announced how they were changing their policies on hate speech. Over on YouTube, several white supremacist channels have been banned, they say.

The impact of Stop Hate for Profit is already rippling out to other social media sites. Coca-Cola and Starbucks are pausing all social media platforms this month, whilst Mars Inc., which makes Snickers and M&Ms amongst other things, confirmed it was pausing adverts across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram from July.

Is the action going to work?

Success all depends on how you measure it. The big goal in all of this, according to Greenblatt, is to have Facebook make changes to make the platform safer for users. 

Experts and marketing analysts reckon that the boycott is more about the perception of Facebook, rather than doing major damage to the bottom line. There have been numerous scandals about elections and privacy, but it’s been working hard to rehabilitate its image, particularly with its policies during the coronavirus pandemic. 

At Northwestern University’s Kellog School of Management, Professor Braydon King says that it’s the media coverage of a boycott rather than any financial hit that’s the biggest threat. 

“Your ability to make employees and other stakeholders happy is linked to your reputation,” he said. 

King has studied boycotts between 1990 to 2005, and found that the stock price of companies being targeted took a 1% hit for each day the coverage was in the national media. Around a quarter of those boycotts that attracted nationwide media coverage got at least some concessions from the company being targeted.

The revenue hit Facebook can expect is unclear, no company has been forthcoming with how much money they actually spend on Facebook advertising each month. There has, however, been a clear impact on investors. Facebook shares lost 8% on Friday has brands like Unilever jumped in on the boycott. $56 billion was wiped from the company’s market value in one day, says Bloomberg.

A boycott that lasts more than one month could be more of a challenge. The data that Facebook collects on users is a treasure trove for marketers; advertisers can target potential customers based on location, age, and other information. This data is a valuable tool for business that they can’t access themselves.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal drew an advertiser boycott back in 2018, yet Facebook continued to grow in terms of users and sales. 

“Facebook is safe for now,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Outrage is hard to keep going because you need to keep feeding it.”