Jul 2, 2020 - Technology

As boycott grows, Facebook juggles rights groups and advertisers

A gif of the facebook F bouncing fire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As an advertiser boycott of Facebook over its tolerance of hate speech continues to snowball, the company has begun making small, incremental changes to mollify activists while it tries to buy time to evolve its content policies.

Driving the news: Sources tell Axios that the product and policy changes sought by the #StopHateForProfit campaign were long under discussion both inside Facebook and with some external groups. Meanwhile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly told employees that the boycotting advertisers will be back before long.

What we’re hearing: Before the boycott started, Facebook had been in touch with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), with whom Facebook and its COO Sheryl Sandberg have a longstanding relationship. The ADL often provides input on Facebook’s policies, including its policies on hate speech.

Details: Facebook has been having private conversations about curbing hate speech with civil rights groups and marketing industry leaders for months.

  • After the company's decision in May not to remove a post from President Trump that many thought incited violence in the wake of George Floyd's death and the ensuing protests, civil rights groups criticized Zuckerberg and the company for not taking action.
  • The leaders then decided to go public with a boycott to pressure the tech giant to move faster.

Driving the news: In the past few days, the company has ramped up internal and external communications about the boycott.

  • Facebook's global sales leader Carolyn Everson has been on calls with advertisers to assure them that Facebook has been listening to their concerns about hate speech and working to come up with solutions to address them, sources tell Axios.
  • Michael Kassan, founder and CEO of the powerhouse media advisory firm MediaLink, said he's been involved in several conversations with Facebook about this issue on an ongoing basis.
  • "I think Facebook is trying," he said, "I know the effort and the intensity is real and I know the intent is right. Whether they can act fast enough remains to be seen."
  • Kassan notes that Everson's respect among marketers will help the company get through the situation, but that ultimately, brands are feeling strong public pressure to act on this issue.
  • "If you're a marketer and you don't participate in the boycott, you're going to get trolled in a different way," he said, noting the difficult position brands are in. He said that many marketers are "apologetic" right now towards Facebook, noting that they feel pressured to join the boycott, even if they don't normally like to negotiate that way.
  • In a video town hall meeting with employees last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told staffers that he thinks the boycotts are a repetitional issue more than a revenue issue and that he expects the departed advertisers to return "soon enough," per The Information.

Facebook has taken several steps over the past few days to publicly address the controversy over its policies. By the end of June, over 400 companies, including major Fortune 500 firms like Unilever, CVS and Verizon, said they would be boycotting the brand.

  • On Wednesday, Nick Clegg, the company's VP of global affairs and communications, penned a post describing the company's view of its progress on eliminating hate speech on its platforms.
  • It also posted a blog post describing the work it's doing in response to the nine recommendations outlined by the #StopHateforProfit boycott organizers, which includes the ADL, along with Color for Change, Common Sense Media and NAACP.
  • Facebook will meet with the boycott's organizers, as Reuters reported and a company spokesperson confirmed to Axios. That will happen Monday or Tuesday, the ADL confirmed to Reuters.
  • Last week, Zuckerberg said Facebook will begin labeling posts that break its rules but are deemed "newsworthy" because they come from public figures.

What's next: Sources say that results from the company's third civil rights audit, which addresses many of the concerns from the civil rights groups, will be announced alongside more changes to its policies in the next few weeks.

Go deeper