Advertisers do have power to challenge Facebook and boycotts can work
A view from Gideon Spanier

Advertisers do have power to challenge Facebook and boycotts can work

More brands need to spell out the change that they want to see from Facebook.

There is a paradox about some big brands pulling their adspend from Facebook in July in an effort to force the world’s biggest social media company to bring in tougher curbs against hateful content and hateful ads.

At the time of writing, about 100 companies, including Coca-Cola, Ford, Diageo, HP, Starbucks, Unilever and Verizon, have said they will stop paid ads on Facebook and sister site Instagram and, in some cases, on other social platforms such as Twitter.

Yet Facebook has eight million advertisers, including millions of small businesses, which make up the majority of its customers, and they are likely to keep spending.

So, at this stage, Facebook is facing more of a reputational problem, rather than a financial risk, from the Stop Hate for Profit boycott, which is focused on the US, where the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s presidential re-election battle have magnified the issue of hate speech on social media.

Carolyn Everson, vice-president of global business solutions, has insisted to advertisers: "Boycotting in general is not the way for us to make progress together."

But Facebook will know that when a growing number of advertisers speak out, it can create momentum and embolden other, more cautious brands to join in.

Nine years ago, the News of the World was the biggest-selling, Sunday tabloid in the UK, until the illegal phone-hacking scandal exploded.

A mass boycott by advertisers ensued and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation closed the title within days at the start of July 2011. 

Advertisers pulling their money didn’t force the end of the News of the World, but it knocked News Corp’s share price and accelerated change.

More recently, YouTube suffered a major boycott in 2017 because of ads appearing next to extremist content and then paedophile comments appearing below some videos.

The ad boycott "really drove action" by YouTube, a FTSE-100 marketer recalls: "It hadn’t really moved the dial before. I think boycotts can work. It’s got to be sensible, proportionate and around the actions that matter to you as a brand."

Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant finds itself in a difficult situation, because Facebook’s reservoirs of goodwill with advertisers have already run low.

Over the past four years, the company has appeared reluctant to listen properly and to heed the concerns of consumers, marketers, agencies, politicians, regulators and, in some cases, its own staff.

There have been so many problems that have emerged, including inflated advertising metrics, fake news, misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica to target voters, the live-streaming of a terror attack in New Zealand and hatred stirred up against minority groups such as the Rohingya in Myanmar.

And, too often, when Facebook does tackle the problem, "everything they do is reactive", as a leading UK media buyer says.

Some doubters think it is convenient for advertisers to withdraw from Facebook for just one month, especially when money is tight because of the coronavirus downturn.

Unilever and Diageo have pulled spend from multiple social media platforms, rather than just Facebook, which also helps to soften the blow for Zuckerberg’s company.

Things could soon return to the status quo – like so many previous Facebook rows.

A significant moment

But it would be a mistake to think that major companies such as Diageo (where Facebook EMEA boss Nicola Mendelsohn is a non-executive director) or Starbucks (where Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg used to be a non-exec) take these decisions lightly.

I can say from past experience that one of the only times that senior executives from Facebook’s Silicon Valley HQ in Menlo Park will rush to get on the phone to Campaign is if a major advertiser is unhappy with the social media company over brand safety or social safety.

And when blue-chip companies or respected organisations pull adspend on a matter of principle, it can be lasting. The UK government stayed off YouTube for more than a year after its 2017 brand-safety crisis.

Crucially, this new boycott of Facebook comes at a significant moment – when racial inequality has shot to the top of the US corporate agenda and companies are under pressure not to be neutral on the issue.

Agencies say they have been receiving "a lot of questions" from clients, including in the UK, in the past couple of days. Meanwhile, senior Facebook executives have been bombarding members of their client council with conciliatory messages.

Zuckerberg has responded, announcing on Friday that Facebook will do more to label what it called "newsworthy content" where it decides "the public interest value outweighs the risk to harm" – for example, a post by a politician.

Users will still be able to share this content, but there will be an on-screen message "to tell people that the content they’re sharing may violate our policies". 

That followed a move a month ago by Twitter, which has been much more proactive and started labelling some of Trump’s inflammatory posts, including "When the looting starts, the shooting starts" about Black Lives Matter protests.

Facebook will also prohibit "a wider category of hateful content in ads", including claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are "a threat" to others. That looked like a tacit nod to a recent pro-Trump ad that appear to use Nazi-style iconography.

The company adds that it employs 35,000 moderators, its artificial-intelligence tools catch "nearly 90%" of hate speech before users report it and a recent European Union report found Facebook assessed more hate speech in 24 hours than Twitter or YouTube.

Facebook announced further news on Monday about improving content moderation, including more use of external audit companies and a move on Tuesday to raise awareness about fake news.

Spell out the need for change

However, these concessions don’t alter Facebook’s fundamental position that it is a platform, not a publisher, and it should allow freedom of speech wherever possible.

Steve Hatch, vice-president of Facebook in northern Europe, maintained in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there is "no tolerance on our platform for hate speech", particularly when it might create "real-world harm".

But Hatch was left floundering when interviewer Nick Robinson pointed out the perils of algorithmic sharing, as the most-shared post on Facebook about George Floyd, in the immediate aftermath of his death at the hands of the Minneapolis police, described the African-American man as "a horrible human being".

Robinson zeroed in on an issue that will resonate with many advertisers: "In what way does that not create real-world harm?"

Responsible advertisers and their agencies must decide whether they are satisfied by the standards that Facebook sets itself and ask what more the social media company can do to create a safer environment for users and brands. 

IPG Mediabrands took a constructive step last week when it set out 10 media responsibility principles that outline how advertisers can "avoid and eliminate working with media partners or platforms that create hostile environments".

More brands need to spell out the change that they want to see from Facebook and the wider digital ecosystem.

"There should be no place for harmful content on social media and this might mean the independent oversight of social media companies," one chief marketing officer says.

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a pan-ad industry group that launched a year ago at Cannes Lions, has made little demonstrable impact so far and brands may wield greater influence when they speak out individually, as we have seen in the past 10 days.

Some marketers decided long ago that it was easier to stay silent and leave it to regulators such as the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority, which is due to publish a landmark report imminently.

And it's not easy for brands because "as soon as you get close to these issues, they are difficult and complex", one ad industry chief who represents advertisers warns. 

But brands, which have to get re-elected every day by consumers, can move faster than regulators.

Advertisers do have the power to challenge Facebook and advertising boycotts can drive progress.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief at Campaign