A harshly critical independent audit of Facebook's civil rights record and contentious meetings with the organizers of a growing advertiser boycott are signs that the company's strategy of prioritizing free speech may be unsustainable, Axios' Sara Fischer and I report.
The big picture: CEO Mark Zuckerberg's policy of making small concessions to those who demand that it curtail hate speech and misinformation on its platform while otherwise giving users a much freer rein than other platforms allow is facing tough challenges, as U.S. public opinion shifts strongly towards civil rights and the 2020 presidential election is fast approaching.
The audit: Some of Facebook's choices have constituted "significant setbacks for civil rights," according to the most recent audit that Facebook itself commissioned, obtained overnight by the New York Times and set for full release today. (See story below.)
The meetings: Facebook's leadership tried to placate the organizers of a burgeoning ad boycott Tuesday during two tense video conferences, but the civil rights leaders say Facebook offered platitudes rather than action.
Between the lines: It's the second time in two months that top civil rights leaders emerged dissatisfied and frustrated from meetings with Mark Zuckerberg and his lieutenants. The failure of a previous meeting in June led to the boycott, and it seems likely this meeting will only but widen the gulf between the social network and its critics.
Details: In the first of two Tuesday meetings, which civil rights leaders say was called for by Facebook, Free Press co-CEO Jessica González, NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson, Color Of Change president Rashad Robinson and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, chief product officer Chris Cox, as well as other Facebook policy and product executives.
What they're saying: The four boycott organizers spoke Tuesday night with Dan Primack for a special edition of the Axios Re:Cap podcast. They confirmed that the boycott was the outgrowth of long-simmering frustrations that only intensified following the June meeting with Zuckerberg and Sandberg.
- "For us it's been building and building," Greenblatt told Primack.
- Greenblatt said that the final straw was the company ignoring the fact that white nationalists were organizing on Facebook in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
- "We had tried everything," Robinson agreed. "For a number of years, we have planned and thought about boycotts and pulled back."
- Johnson of the NAACP noted that his organization had led a "log off Facebook" campaign back in 2018 after word broke that Russia had used Facebook to subvert the 2016 presidential election.
Facebook, for its part, offered a tempered response. "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.
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."
The bottom line: 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.
Our thought bubble: It's going to be a lot harder for advertisers to come back to Facebook while boycott leaders are still urging them to keep it up.