Facebook is finally paying a price for its inability — if not its outright refusal — to effectively moderate hate speech and misinformation on its platform.
In recent weeks, over 400 companies have pulled advertising from the social media giant. Coca-Cola, Adidas/Reebok, and Hershey’s are among the major brands to suspend Facebook advertising through the month of July, while others have pledged suspensions through the end of the year, or indefinitely. “When we re-engage will depend on Facebook’s response,” Levi Strauss CMO Jen Sey wrote in a blog post announcing the company’s decision to cease advertising. The decision, she wrote, was made out of “concern about Facebook’s failure to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech on its platform.”
According to The New York Times, advertising makes up 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue.
The mass exodus began in June after advocacy groups, celebrities, and politicians began pushing for Facebook to reconsider its hands-off approach to hateful and/or inaccurate content, and for companies to stop advertising on the platform until it does. The calls were spurred in part by the police killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as Facebook has long been fertile ground for white supremacist rhetoric. More specifically, they were spurred by multiple racist, inflammatory posts from President Trump responding to the demonstrations against police brutality, including one in which he suggested the “THUGS” protesting should be shot.
On June 11th, Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent in the November election, sent a petition to followers demanding Facebook change its policy toward misinformation and hate speech. “With fewer than five months until the 2020 election, real changes to Facebook’s policies for their platform and how they enforce them are necessary to protect against a repeat of the role that disinformation played in the 2016 election and that continues to threaten our democracy today,” Biden campaign spokesperson Bill Russo said in a statement provided to multiple outlets. “We are urging our supporters to make their voices heard in this call for change.”
In October, Facebook refused to remove an ad in which the Trump campaign falsely accused Biden of corruption, saying it didn’t violate the company’s policy.
As pressure against Facebook to change its practices mounted in recent weeks, the Anti-Defamation League launched a #StopHateForProfit campaign calling for companies to pull their advertising. “Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence,” the campaign’s site reads. Hundreds of companies obliged.
Facebook finally decided to take some action last week as high-profile advertisers continued to flee. On Friday, the company announced it would add various labels to political posts — like notating racist posts from the president are allowed on the platform because they are newsworthy — and expanding its definition of hateful content that warrants removal. It also committed to an audit over its approach to hate speech from the Media Review Council, and held multiple video meetings aimed at reassuring advertisers that they’re doing all they can to remedy the issue.
But the buck ultimately stops with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose traditional response to criticism is to throw up a proverbial middle finger at whomever is doing the criticizing, usually in the form of equivocations or hollow promises to do better as the company has faced a cascade of scandals in recent years, from massive data breaches to a questionable foray into cryptocurrency to its role in facilitating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The relationship between Zuckerberg and Trump, the two players at the center of the social-media hate-speech debacle, has long been a subject of speculation. NBC News reported in November that the two had a dinner that was not made public the previous month when Zuckerberg was in Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. During that testimony, Zuckerberg wasn’t able to answer basic questions from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) about Facebook’s policy toward moderating misinformation from political campaigns. He ultimately reasoned that it is up to users to decide whether content is accurate. “I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves,” he said.
With one of the most consequential elections in American history only months away, the deflection is no longer cutting it for the companies whose advertising dollars keep Facebook’s lights on. Zuckerberg, once again, has promised to do better.
“I’m committed to making sure Facebook remains a place where people can use their voice to discuss important issues, because I believe we can make more progress when we hear each other,” Zuckerberg told employees on Friday. “But I also stand against hate, or anything that incites violence or suppresses voting, and we’re committed to removing that no matter where it comes from.”