Where will the Facebook boycott lead?

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Is the company vulnerable to increased scrutiny

Facebook’s top two officials will be meeting today with civil rights groups who have successfully organized the largest boycott of the platform’s advertising system to date. The boycott has been using the #StopHateforProfit hastag, and has been led by organizations like the ADL, NAACP, Color for Change, and Common Sense Media among others.

These groups have capitalized on the current political climate to pressure advertisers into reducing or eliminating their spending on ads on Facebook.

Today’s meetings come after a series of actions the company has taken to appease both advertisers and campaign organizers, none of which have been effective. Company officials have been calling, writing, and pleading behind the scenes with major brands who have joined this boycott.

However how much of this is public relations, and how much of it is driven by business concerns?

Is this hurting Facebook’s bottom line, or are they so large that a temporary or even permanent reduction in advertising will not be enough to pressure them to change?

Should this boycott have focused on the platform as a whole rather than just the advertising business?

What’s the boycott about?

T’Nae Parker, a Black activist who’s been on Facebook since college, almost always has the app open on her phone, spending hours each day helping her community in South Carolina – that is, unless Facebook cuts off her access.

By her count, Parker has had her posts removed and her account locked in a punishment commonly referred to as “Facebook jail” 27 times for speaking out against racism or the complicity of white people in anti-Blackness.

“Shutting us out is basically saying ‘Shut up,’” Parker, 36, says.

Now, a Facebook advertising boycott is giving voice to years of complaints that the social media giant disproportionately stifles Black users while failing to protect them from harassment.

What makes this particular campaign both interesting and relevant is that it is focusing on the social and political impact of the platform, and the biases that tend to impact already marginalized users. This includes hate speech, political polarization, and the broader impact on democracy.

The campaign has been framed in a way that makes it easy for companies large and small to get on the bandwagon, not just because they oppose hate speech and racism, but also because they oppose Facebook’s power and consolidation of their industry.

This may give the ad industry a chance to rethink their strategy rather than just chasing after platforms they can’t influence or rely upon.

Loerke says he believes operators in the ecosystem, including the social media platforms, have an interest in mitigating hateful speech and content. But the way it’s done now, he says, is unsustainable and inefficient, with platforms, agency holding companies and brand owners each with their own policies, values and tools.

“That leads to plenty of operators which operate in good faith, but a system which is simply unscalable and inefficient,” he said. “The only way to address this is to find a system and to put in place a system which is across the ecosystem, which will allow brand owners to make informed choices about where they put their ads.”

He said for that to happen, four things need to be changed: Content needs standardization, so there is alignment, for instance, in the definition of “hate speech” across entities; data needs to be collected about incidents of hate speech and other harmful content in a unified way; third-party verification is needed instead of self-reported data; and tools that operate across the ecosystem that let brands act according to their values.

This point about third party verification is important. Facebook needs oversight.

That so many advertisers are on a temporary hiatus from Facebook says more about the complicated relationship between both groups, than it does their stance on hate speech. If the boycott is temporary then damage to Facebook’s revenue is also temporary. Therefore, this boycott is less about hurting Facebook and more about advertisers trying to exert their influence over the social network’s policymaking. Doing so now comes at relatively little cost to these businesses given its happening during a slow second-quarter trading period a recession when ad costs are were already being cut.

“This boycott has been brewing for a while now because you have technology platforms, particularly Facebook, that don’t take our concerns seriously, said the head of media at a CPG advertiser who was unauthorized to talk to Digiday. “They can host as many meetings with trade bodies as they want, but if nothing ever changes then it creates a very frustrating scenario for advertisers.”

Similarly this boycott is also bringing in language we’ve used here, that recognizes that the company’s power is different and arguably unprecedented.

There is no power on this earth that is capable of holding Facebook to account. No legislature, no law enforcement agency, no regulator. Congress has failed. The EU has failed. When the Federal Trade Commission fined it a record $5bn for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, its stock price actually went up.

Which is what makes this moment so interesting and, possibly, epochal. If the boycott of Facebook by some of the world’s biggest brands – Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks – succeeds, it will be because it has targeted the only thing that Facebook understands: its bottom line. And if it fails, that will be another sort of landmark.

Because this is a company that facilitated an attack on a US election by a foreign power, that live-streamed a massacre then broadcast it to millions around the world, and helped incite a genocide.

I’ll say that again. It helped incite a genocide. A United Nations report says the use of Facebook played a “determining role” in inciting hate and violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya, which has seen tens of thousands die and hundreds of thousands flee for their lives.

The reasons or motivations to join this boycott are numerous, but will it be enough to sway or change this growing empire?

Today’s meetings are the sort that politicians engage in to defuse a crisis. They’ll be coupled with a “civil rights audit” that will acknowledge shortcomings while also proposing actions that will distract from Facebook’s power and instead make it seem as if they’re taking action.

Will the campaign organizers take this bait? Will advertisers cave in?

Hopefully not. This time could be different as the combination of legitimate issues and deep distrust of Facebook’s power may be enough to keep this campaign going and building momentum.

So far, the advertiser pull-outs represent only a fraction of Facebook’s revenue — analysts said at the start of this week that they still expect the company to have a strong quarter, with some $17 billion in sales — but the PR blitz and creeping sense that the site was becoming toxic to ad buyers got the site’s attention.

The boycott organizers had hoped that keeping the push limited to a month would act as a forming mechanism, pushing Facebook to make quick changes. The coalition came up with 10 specific demands, among them installing a high-level executive with civil-rights expertise, doing away with the fact-checking exemption for politicians’ speech and creating human points of contact for Facebook users experiencing identity-based harassment.

It will be interesting over the next several days and weeks to see if this campaign expands, and how Facebook responds. Similarly whether the focus of the campaign will move beyond mere advertising.

What do you think? Where is all this headed?

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