Jul 28, 2020 - Technology

Scoop: Facebook boycotters lobby lawmakers on antitrust

Animated GIF of a facebook AP button with a "no" symbol in the upper left corner
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Organizers of the #StopHateforProfit advertising boycott say Facebook's ability to withstand their campaign suggests a competition problem and are urging House antitrust investigators to press CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the issue Wednesday.

Why it matters: If the boycott isn't enough to get Facebook and other social media platforms to take firmer action against hate speech, its organizers are hoping pressure from Washington will get results.

What's happening: Common Sense Media, a consumer tech advocacy group, has written letters to the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on behalf of the boycott organizers, which also include groups like the NAACP, Color for Change and the Anti-Defamation League.

  • They want panel members to raise the boycott with Zuckerberg at a landmark hearing Wednesday.

Details: In a letter written to all committee members and obtained by Axios, Common Sense tells lawmakers the boycott campaign has "highlighted how much control Facebook has over online advertising."

  • The letter is the second of two notes sent to lawmakers in the past week — one sent last Tuesday and the second one Monday afternoon.
  • It provides sample questions that they want lawmakers to ask Zuckerberg, such as, "[I]s it accurate that you have said that advertisers will be back soon? Does this mean they have no real alternative?" Zuckerberg has reportedly told employees as much.

Another sample question the groups suggest for Zuckerberg: "Facebook offers tremendous reach and targeting capabilities to advertisers. What alternatives do advertisers have to reach the demographic audiences held captive by Facebook?"

  • Committee members have confirmed receipt of the letters and say appreciate the input from the campaign, sources tell Axios. Some of the groups leading the boycott, including the NAACP, have individually been in touch with lawmakers regarding the hearing, sources say.

"Facebook has enough power that it believes it is effectively immune to ad boycotts, massive privacy violations, and other scandals," Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer said in a call with Axios.

The other side: "The perception that our services are full of hate and political discourse is not true," a Facebook spokesperson tells Axios. "There's no place for hate on our services and we'e made it clear there is nothing more important than that."

  • The company has said it faces ample competition from other players in online advertising. Meanwhile, its free-to-users services don't trigger the consumer pricing concerns that antitrust cases are traditionally built on.

Between the lines: Common Sense has long been lobbying for more action against Big Tech across an array of issues.

  • Steyer says the aim is "fundamental regulatory change," which could include Facebook being forced to divest Instagram and WhatsApp.
  • For its part, Facebook has long said breakups aren't the answer for the issues it has wrestled with but has called for regulation to help reduce the amount of harmful content online and harmonize differing standards on privacy and other issues.

The big picture: The #StopHateforProfit boycott has escalated quickly to encompass roughly 1,000 advertisers.

  • Tensions between the boycotters and the tech giant haven't improved since the company's disastrous meeting with civil rights leaders last month, Steyer says, and Common Sense hasn't been in touch with Facebook since.
  • "I don't feel they've made progress," says Steyer. "I would say deny, deflect, distract has been their strategy. The meeting a couple weeks ago was a total failure."

What's next: Steyer says that the Stop Hate for Profit campaign is going to be continuing past July. "We will be making an announcement about that later this week."

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