Jul 7, 2020 - Technology

Boycott organizers slam Facebook following tense virtual meeting

Illustration of a billboard with the facebook logo on it turning off

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Civil rights leaders blasted Facebook's top executives shortly after speaking with them on Tuesday, saying that the tech giant's leaders "failed to meet the moment" and were "more interested in having a dialogue than producing outcomes."

Why it matters: The likely fallout from the meeting is that the growing boycott of Facebook's advertising platform, which has reached nearly 1000 companies in less than a month, will extend longer than previously anticipated, deepening Facebook's public relations nightmare.

Details: The meeting, which civil rights leaders say was called for by Facebook, was attended by Free Press Co-CEO Jessica J. González, NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson, Color Of Change president Rashad Robinson and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

  • Attending on behalf of Facebook was CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, chief product officer Chris Cox, as well as other Facebook policy and product executives.

Of note: The meeting, which lasted around an hour, occurred over Zoom instead of on BlueJeans, a video conference platform recently acquired by Verizon that Facebook usually uses for conference calls.

What they're saying: In a press conference following the meeting, civil rights leaders expressed disappointment with Facebook. They said company leaders were too focused on explaining the nuance in their policies around hate speech and misinformation instead of committing to changes and demands by the group.

  • "They showed up to the meeting expecting an 'A' for attendance. Attending alone was not enough," said Robinson.
  • "We know there's a lot of good and well-intentioned people at Facebook, but the company is intentionally flawed," said Greenblatt.
  • "For the past two years, we've watched conversations blossom into nothingness," said Johnson. "No media outlet would allow what Facebook is allowing on its platform."

Facebook's response was more tempered. "This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform," a spokesperson said.

  • "They want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we. That's why it's so important that we work to get this right ... We know we will be judged by our actions not by our words and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.”

One big issue for the rights groups is Facebook's size.

  • "Facebook has 2.6 billion users worldwide. That's more followers than Christianity," said Robinson.
  • González said that Facebook's assurances that it's making progress are hard to assess given the company's scale — as well as Facebook statistics that report percentages of hate speech removed but give no sense of whether total hate speech on the platform is growing or shrinking. "We simply don't have answers on those calls for transparency," she said.
  • Boycott organizers also complained that Facebook didn't meet any of its list of 10 demands, like "creating an internal mechanism to automatically flag hateful content in private groups for human review" or "create expert teams to review submissions of identity-based hate and harassment."

Be smart: The civil rights leaders made clear their increasing frustration with Facebook's slow pace of change.

  • Robinson said that he met virtually with Zuckerberg and Sandberg in early June about the company's upcoming civil rights audit with prominent civil rights attorneys Vanita Gupta and Sherrilyn Ifill about these issues, but little progress was made.
  • He said he's been in dialogue with Facebook for five years and has always come back to the table for more discussion, even when he felt Facebook was acting in bad faith.

The big picture: Facebook isn't likely to report material revenue losses from the boycotts when it announces its second quarter earnings in three weeks, but the saga has weighed heavily on the firm's reputation and morale.

  • For now, advertisers are waiting to follow the lead of the boycott organizers. Most participating companies have paused their ad commitments on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms at least through July.

Our thought bubble: Most observers have assumed this social media boycott will end the way others have, with advertisers resuming spending. But it's going to be a lot harder for them to come back to Facebook while boycott leaders are still urging them to keep it up.

What's next: Tomorrow, Facebook will be publishing the results of its third independent civil rights audit. Robinson said that previous audits "had not actually led to the implementation of changes" and "what we get are recommendations."

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