Advertisers revolt over Facebook’s inaction on hate speech

Several companies have decided to suspend advertising on Facebook throughout this month over the social media giant’s failure to deal with “the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms”.

Clothing retailers The North Face, REI and Patagonia were the first to announce they would be pulling advertising from Facebook, and have since been joined by freelance job listing site Upwork and internet company Mozilla.

The pledge to suspend advertising on Facebook is part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign launched on 17 June by a coalition of six US-based civil liberties organisations – the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Sleeping Giants, Common Sense, Free Press and Color of Change.

The campaign comes amid international protests over police brutality and wider institutional racism following the death on 25 May of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American who was killed in Minneapolis during a police arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit note.

According to an ADL press release, the campaign “is a response to Facebook’s long history of allowing racist, violent and verifiably false content to run rampant on its platform”, and it will seek to “organise corporate and public pressure to demand Facebook stop generating revenue from hateful content”.

It claimed that Facebook “is amplifying the messages of white supremacists, permitting incitement to violence, and is failing to disrupt bad actors using the platform to do harm”, while raking in $70bn a year in advertising revenue.

In response to the campaign launch, Carolyn Everson, vice-president of Facebook’s global business group, said: “We deeply respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organisations are about how, together, we can be a force for good.”

Facebook said 89% of content removed for violating hate speech was detected by its systems before being reported by anyone, and that progress must be careful and thoughtful to ensure well-intentioned systems do not end up taking down legitimate counter-speech.

It added that it would continue to make significant product investments to tackle hate.

But ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Facebook had “repeatedly failed to take meaningful action” despite organisations involved in the campaign having previously tried, both individually and collectively, to push it into making the platform safer.

ADL further outlined how, in recent years, Facebook has “made Breitbart News a ‘trusted news source’ and made The Daily Caller a ‘fact checker’ despite both publications having records of working with known white nationalists and neo-Nazis” and “silenced black users on the platforms for calling out racism”, among other incidents.

In October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the Breitbart decision during a public Q&A, arguing that for Facebook’s then-newly introduced News tab to be a trusted source, “it needs to have a diversity of views”.

He added: “I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives, but is doing so in a way that complies with the standards we have.”

Jason Kint, CEO of advertising trade association Digital Content Next, told Computer Weekly the campaign is a clear demonstration of the harms brought about by Facebook’s platform.

“It’s been well-documented over the years but their business model of collecting data to microtarget advertising is toxic without proper responsibility for the content and engagement that they promote through it. We can’t lose sight of the US, international governments and nearly every US state attorney general investigating the company for antitrust,” he said.

“On the current campaign, I was listening to a disturbing New York Times podcast on how Facebook is undermining Black Lives Matter while at the same time advertisers are standing up to their customers and employees to say “Black Lives Matter.”  Advertisers will spend over $70 billion this year subsidizing Facebook’s platform and its shareholders.  I am hopeful they see what certainly appears to be hypocrisy in standing on the sideline here.”

James P Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense, said allowing disinformation, hate and incitement on its platform had helped to make Facebook one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world.

“Facebook has refused to stop prioritising profits over the wellbeing of our society, but advertisers can, which is why we are urging companies to take a pause from spending on Facebook ads until it makes common-sense changes on the platform that protect our children, our democracy and social justice in this country,” said Steyer.

Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, added: “Facebook’s failure of leadership has actively stoked the racial hatred we see in our country and even profits off its proliferation. A key way for major corporations to demand racial justice is to withhold their dollars until Facebook becomes more responsible and accountable to black communities on the platform.”

Upwork CEO Hayden Brown said in a statement: “We cannot stand by and be complicit to, or complacent about, the spread of hate, racism and misinformation,” adding that Upwork “will pause advertising on Facebook and Instagram as a part of this campaign”.

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