The Facebook boycott advertisers have the right company but the wrong diagnosis


It was a big news day for bans: Twitch temporarily banned Donald Trump, Reddit banned The_Donald, YouTube banned a group of far-right creators, and India banned TikTok. But I still haven’t written about the Facebook ad boycott, which accelerated since last I wrote — so let’s talk about that today, and we’ll get to the rest later this week.

I.

A social media advertising boycott that began with some outerwear brands picked up steam over the weekend, and has been joined by some of the giants of consumer brand advertising. Unilever, Verizon, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Clorox are among those who have pulled their ads. (Microsoft did so quietly in May.) Some pulled their ads for a month; some put their ads on an indefinite “pause.” Some pulled their ads from Facebook only; others pulled them from Twitter and YouTube as well. Some joined an official boycott led by a coalition of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP; others nodded respectfully at the boycott but said they were doing their own thing.

Most of the attention has focused on the Facebook-related aspects of the boycott, so let’s start there: What exactly do the advertisers want? The civil rights group put up a web page with some “recommendations,” starting with hiring a “C-suite level executive with civil rights expertise to evaluate products and policies for discrimination, bias, and hate.” (My sense is that Facebook’s chief diversity officer does at least some of this already, if somewhat informally.) It also asked Facebook to “submit to regular, third party, independent audits of identity-based hate and misinformation.” (Like this one?)

Then there’s a part where they ask for their money back:

Provide audit of and refund to advertisers whose ads were shown next to content that was later removed for violations of terms of service.

The remainder is a mix of requests for things Facebook already does or has a policy against (“stop recommending or otherwise amplifying groups or content from groups associated with hate”; “removing misinformation related to voting”); sort of already has a policy against (“Find and remove public and private groups focused on white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism”); and things it thought about doing but decided not to (fact-check political ads).

To be fair, there are some original ideas in here. (My favorite, and something every platform should absolutely do: “Enable individuals facing severe hate and harassment to connect with a live Facebook employee.”) But in their public statements, most of the brands have spoken as if Facebook doesn’t ban hate speech at all.

Take Unilever, which removed ads from Twitter as well as Facebook. Here are Suzanne Vranica and Deepa Seetharaman in the Wall Street Journal:

“Based on the current polarization and the election that we are having in the U.S., there needs to be much more enforcement in the area of hate speech,” Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice president of global media, said.

“Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society,” Unilever said. The ban also will cover Instagram.

If advertising Hellmann’s mayonnaise on Facebook and Twitter was “adding value to people and society” before, it’s news to me. But the larger point is that what Unilever and other brands say they want — “more enforcement” — is so vague as to be nearly meaningless.

For instance, take a look at the statement Adidas and Reebok made when they pulled ads on Facebook and Instagram through July: “Racist, discriminatory, and hateful online content have no place in our brand or in society.” And here is Facebook’s policy on hate speech: “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.”

This would suggest that what is at stake here, to the extent that the boycott is actually about hate speech, is not what is allowed but what is enforced. And if that’s the conversation you want to have, you need to ask different questions. Questions like: How swiftly should violating content be removed? How much of it should be identified by automated systems? And how many mistakes are you willing to tolerate, both for posts removed in error and posts left up in error?

What makes the last one tricky is that given Facebook’s vast size, even a 1 percent error rate means that thousands of mistakes will be made every day. It’s not possible to let 1.73 billion people a day post freely on your services and have them all comply with your rules. Maybe your reaction to that is that it’s OK, some mistakes are fine. Maybe your reaction is that’s terrible, we should get rid of the law that makes all that posting possible. (This is the stated position of the Republican and Democratic candidates for president.)

Or maybe your reaction is, how did Facebook get so big in the first place? Did it maybe buy up its main competition and maneuver other competitors out of the market? Is that why so many of its decisions around content moderation suddenly feel like national emergencies?

So much of what has been discussed over the past week is framed as a discussion about policy and enforcement, when what it’s really about, it seems to me, is size.

II.

The traditional reason to demand an advertiser boycott of a media company is to increase pressure on the media company to take an action by hurting its bottom line. It seems unlikely that this will happen to Facebook, at least not unless the boycott grows by an order of magnitude.

The reason is that there are two main kinds of advertising on Facebook. One is brand advertising, in which a company like Coca-Cola shows you a charming ad about sugar water to make you have warm feelings about it, making you more likely to buy it at some point in the future. The other is direct-response advertising, where a company like Zynga asks you to install a poker app on your phone, or an e-commerce brand asks you to buy a toothbrush right inside the Facebook app.

It’s the brand advertising companies that are leading the boycott. And the problem for them, or anyone rooting for them, is that brand advertisers represent a small minority of Facebook’s customers. Brian Fung explained the situation at CNN:

Of the companies that have joined the boycott so far, only three — Unilever, Verizon and the outdoor equipment retailer REI — rank among the top 100 advertisers on Facebook, according to data compiled by Pathmatics, a marketing intelligence firm. In 2019, Unilever ranked 30th, spending an estimated $42.4 million on Facebook ads. Verizon and REI were 88th and 90th, respectively, spending an estimated $23 million each.

The highest-spending 100 brands accounted for $4.2 billion in Facebook advertising last year, according to Pathmatics data, or about 6% of the platform’s ad revenue.

In other words, brand advertisers could all quit Facebook permanently tomorrow and Facebook would still have more than 90 percent of its revenue. And that’s assuming the brand advertisers won’t eventually come back to Facebook — an assumption that, at least for the moment, no one is making. There’s a reason Facebook has more than 7 million advertisers, and the reason is that the ads work.

III.

At the same time, it’s not like you can’t make a good brand safety argument about pulling your ads from Facebook. Each day journalists bring a fresh set of stories about bad posts found on the site: Boogaloo groups, repackaged racist fear-mongering, Holocaust denial, and so on. And advertisers are antsy about seeing their content next to news on a good day — ask any publisher right now how many of these same brands tweeting fervently in support of Black Lives Matter would take out an ad next to a story about police brutality. I doubt even one would.

And so it would be rational after hearing Facebook say it removed 9.6 million pieces of hate speech from the network in the first quarter of 2020 to decide, you know what, maybe let’s just buy a billboard ad somewhere? How about a radio campaign? I hear podcasts are big these days. Sure, your ad is probably not going to run next to a Holocaust denial post. But if it did, would you even know?

If the real issue underlying the ad boycott is Facebook is too big to effectively moderate its own platform — well, that seems like a harder issue for Facebook to argue. It’s just difficult to imagine the company taking it too seriously unless one of the boycotting brands actually says it out loud.

IV.

Inside Facebook, there’s a sense that all of this will blow over eventually. One, it always has before. Two, Facebook still has the direct-response advertisers on its side. And because it has millions of them, the company is insulated from most of the economic fallout.

Facebookers I’ve spoken with tend to be suspicious of the advertisers’ motives. They have noted that, amid the global pandemic, advertisers have been reducing their advertising spending anyway. (Unilever announced it would do so in April.) They have noted that big advertisers have historically disliked Facebook’s auction-based ad system, which affords them less pricing power than they have over other media buys. The fact that, in a recession, a bunch of advertisers would now like refunds for ads that already ran, does not feel entirely like a coincidence. Going on Twitter to say “Facebook should do better,” and collecting your retweets and getting a nice news story out of it, while saving some money in the process, is perhaps less a profile in courage than it has sometimes been presented as over the past few days.

It seems clear that advertisers want to see some sort of concession from Facebook so they can declare victory and move on. And if Facebook does offer some minor concession, and advertisers do readily accept it and move on, then I think those who are skeptical of the motives behind the boycott can make a case that the whole thing was essentially opportunistic.

V.

That said: there will be more bad posts, on Facebook and everywhere else, and these issues will likely flare up anew. Facebook will again be held liable for the worst things people post on it — at least in the court of public opinion — and advertisers might once again stop their spending.

The much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act mostly protects companies like Facebook from lawsuits over what their users post. But the ad boycott shows that there are other ways to hold companies accountable, and some of those ways may prove to be more damaging than a court case. I’m skeptical that the ad boycott will have much of a long-term effect on Facebook’s stock price. But a week of big brands making statements that they see Facebook as a home for hate speech seems likely to leave a mark.

I don’t think the boycott advertisers have diagnosed the real problem here, and I’m sympathetic to those who question their motives. But all that may be beside the point — you don’t always have to be right to land a punch.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending down: Amazon warehouse workers went on strike in Germany after staff at several logistics centers tested positive for the coronavirus. The strikes are taking place at six warehouses across the country. (Sam Shead / CNBC)

Trending down: Grindr is continuing to let users filter by ethnicity after saying the feature would be removed. The news comes nearly a month after the company pledged to remove its ethnicity filter in support of Black Lives Matter protests. (Kevin Truong / Vice)

Governing

Twitch temporarily banned President Trump for airing “hateful content” on the platform. One of the streams in question was a rebroadcast of Trump’s infamous 2015 kickoff rally, where he said that Mexico was sending rapists to the United States. Here’s Jacob Kastrenakes at The Verge:

The suspension arrives a week after Twitch swore it would crack down on harassment within the community following reports of assault and harassment from streamers. It’s a sign that Twitch may be starting to take moderating streams a lot more seriously — the racist language it banned Trump for is often allowed on other platforms due to his role as a politician and President of the United States.

Twitch said last week that it would begin issuing permanent bans to streamers in response to the allegations coming out. The first major ban that came down appears to be on Dr Disrespect, one of the site’s most popular streamers. Twitch has repeatedly declined to confirm why (or even whether) Dr Disrespect was banned — there were not public allegations against him — and the streamer has said he has not been told why his channel has disappeared.

Dr Disrespect also disappeared from Twitch late last week, leading to rumors that he had been banned. The disappearance came two days after Twitch said it would begin issuing permanent suspensions for streamers as it cracked down on accusations of harassment and sexual misconduct. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

YouTube banned several prominent white supremacist channels, including those belonging to Stefan Molyneux, David Duke, and Richard Spencer. According to the company, the channels repeatedly violated YouTube’s policies by alleging that members of protected groups were inferior. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)

Reddit banned more than 2,000 subreddits, including r/The_Donald and r/ChapoTrapHouse, as part of a major expansion of its content policy targeting hate speech. The update comes three weeks after several Reddit forums went dark in protest of the company’s lax policies around hosting racist content. (Casey Newton / The Verge)

The Indian government banned TikTok, along with 58 other apps developed by Chinese companies. Officials said the decision was made over concerns that the apps threatened India’s national security. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)

The Trump administration is calling on Facebook and Twitter to take action against posts that call for people to break curfews and topple statues in connection with the protests nationwide. Officials classified the posts as “criminal activity” that puts Americans’ security at risk. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)

Trump fans and conservative politicians are flocking to the social media app Parler. “We’re a community town square, an open town square, with no censorship,” said Parler’s CEO. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.” (Ari Levy / CNBC)

President Donald Trump promoted a video on Twitter on Sunday morning showing a man in a golf cart with Trump campaign gear shouting “white power.” The tweet was later removed, and the White House said in a statement Trump hadn’t heard the phrase. (Allan Smith / NBC)

Any decision from Twitter on President Trump’s tweets is going to be the least bad option rather than a genuinely good one, argues this scholar. That’s because Trump himself has demolished the norms that would make a genuinely good response possible in the first place. (Jonathan Zittrain / The Atlantic)

The “TikTok Grandma” has been recruited by the Biden Digital Coalition to put her TikTok skills to work supporting Joe Bide’s campaign. Mary Jo Laupp made the viral TikTok video urging people to reserve tickets to President Trump’s rally in Tulsa — and then not show up. (Kellen Browning / The New York Times)

Critics of President Trump are trying to lock up Trump-branded merchandise by leaving thousands of products from his online stores in shopping carts. But while the attack has become a kind of resistance meme, it’s unclear whether the hoax actually worked. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)

Organizers of Facebook advertising boycott campaign are calling on major companies in Europe to stop buying ads on the platform. This represents a global expansion of the protest effort. (Sheila Dang / Reuters)

Some employees at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), find it difficult to be part of an organization that’s closely tied to Facebook. Like employees at the social media giant, workers at CZI are taking issue with Zuckerberg’s reluctance to take action on Trump’s inflammatory posts. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)

Facebook has been more deferential to right-wing users than other platforms, this piece argues, and President Trump is the reason why. When Facebook executives declined to remove a 2015 video from the then-candidate calling for a ban of Muslims entering the United States, it marked the start of what some have criticized as an appeasement strategy toward conservatives. (Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg and Tony Romm / The Washington Post)

Pinterest hired a team of outside lawyers to investigate the company’s culture following public complaints from former employees who say they faced racial discrimination. The lawyers will report to a special committee of Pinterest board members. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)

Amazon workers say the company hasn’t been consistent in enforcing new health and safety protocols meant to protect them from COVID-19. The company has also fired at least six workers who were involved in recent employee protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon. (Shirin Ghaffary and Jason Del Rey / Recode)

About a year into the antitrust probe of Apple, lawyers at the Justice Department are looking into the rules that govern the App Store. These rules require many app makers to use the company’s payment system for subscriptions — and allows Apple to pocket up to a 30 percent cut. (Mark Gurman and David McLaughlin / Bloomberg)

Industry

Tencent, China’s largest company, is rolling out a live-streaming service similar to Amazon’s Twitch in the US. The service, called Trovo Live, closely resembles Twitch in its appearance and functionality. Here are Zheping Huang and Vlad Savov at Bloomberg:

Tencent dominates gaming and social media in its domestic market and may be one of the few companies with the resources to challenge Twitch. But the WeChat operator has met with mixed results in its efforts to build online users abroad and Trovo for now is only an embryonic service.

Still in beta testing, Trovo has gone largely unnoticed outside the gaming community. Its best-attended live streams have only a few dozen viewers at a time, though its Discord chat channel numbers more than 5,000 members. It has attracted some experienced creators from Twitch, YouTube and Microsoft Corp.’s soon-to-be-defunct Mixer platform.

Facebook expanded its fan subscription program to help streamers make money on the platform. Eligible creators in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States can now participate. (Anthony Ha / TechCrunch)

Facebook is testing a dark mode for its mobile apps. The company already launched a dark mode for its desktop interface. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

Google employees are pushing CEO Sundar Pichai to detail the company’s future work from home policy. Pichai said the company was still considering the possibilities but was not likely to announce more permanent changes before the end of summer. (Nick Bastone and Alex Heath / The Information)

Companies have been trying for decades to make working from home work. Many reversed their decisions after finding employees were more productive in the office. (David Streitfeld / The New York Times)

Tech companies are asking their black employee groups to fix Silicon Valley’s race problem for free. Executives are asking employee resource groups to put together programming for Juneteenth, host panels on race, and vet executive statements — without offering them any additional compensation for the extra work. (Nitasha Tiku / The Washington Post)

Young women feeling alienated by dating apps and bar culture are finding love on their For You pages on TikTok. For lesbians, it’s becoming the next Tinder. (Lena Wilson / The New York Times)

TikTok signed a deal with Prince’s estate to bring the late artist’s “full catalog” to its app. It’s the “first short-form video app” to gain access to Prince’s complete discography. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

TikTok is still able to access some of Apple users’ most sensitive data, including passwords, cryptocurrency wallet addresses, account-reset links, and personal messages. The app can read any text that happens to reside in clipboards, though the company said earlier this year it would stop doing so. (Dan Goodin / Ars Technica)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Read another great edition of Subtweet. It’s just a bunch of really good tweets, some funny commentary, and almost nothing else.

Get psyched for Hamilton. It’s coming Friday to Disney+.

Those good tweets

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and brand hypocrisy: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.



Latest articles

Watch the Indigenous Class of 2020 Virtual Graduation Video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eZDW5sIx2Y Celebrities and activists united on Tuesday to celebrate the 2020 graduating class of Indigenous students. The ceremony featured inspiring speeches and performances from...

In This American Revolution, Even the Oscars Have a Role

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to...

Willie Nelson’s July Fourth Picnic Is Virtual in Coronavirus Era

Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic is going ahead this year, but to reduce concerns about the coronavirus the event will be...

Bounties Uproar Casts a Shadow Over a Rare Trump Foreign Policy Achievement

President Donald Trump addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 28, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)For a president with...

Related articles

Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here