Inside the Ad Boycott That Has Facebook on the Defensive

Inside the Ad Boycott That Has Facebook on the DefensiveJuly 3, 2020

The advertising boycott battering Facebook is unlike anything the social-media giant has faced in its 16-year history: Three days in, 800 companies worldwide have pulled millions of dollars in advertising from the social network, with brands from Coca-Cola to Ford to global conglomerate Unilever demanding that Facebook monitor hate speech more aggressively.

With pullouts mounting and the company’s name constantly tied to racism and hate in the news coverage, CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded by live-streaming part of an employee meeting — one of the few times he’s done that in the company’s history. Then, on Wednesday, Facebook’s powerhouse policy and communications chief, former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, issued an open letter, titled “Facebook does not benefit from hate,” touting its efforts to police its content.

The boycott has emerged as a crucial test for a company that has become a key player in American politics simply because of what it hosts and promotes on its site, and which until recently had been vocally doubling down on its commitment to keeping an open platform for users’ speech.

It is also a behind-the-scenes triumph for a novel coalition of civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations — the architects of the #StopHateForProfit campaign that many of the boycotting companies have signed onto.

Interviews with leaders of the nine coalition partners reveal how the groups spun up a boycott idea in a matter of days, responding to the George Floyd protests late this spring and using public energy to join together several long-simmering, frustrated efforts to hold Facebook to account for its content. They lobbied corporate leaders in private and, in some cases, shamed companies on social media to join the effort.

“[Facebook] is a breeding ground for racial hate groups,” says Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, one of the groups that made up the coalition. Referring to Zuckerberg, he said, “You can’t reason with the guy.”

In short order, the coalition has emerged as perhaps Facebook’s most formidable antagonist, when little else — not Congress, not European regulators, not public declarations by celebrities that they were once and truly deleting their Facebook accounts — has had much effect on how the site operates. And their campaign might offer a blueprint for how activist groups can tackle a modern tech giant: fusing novel pressure tactics with the weight of legacy civil rights groups.

It remains to be seen whether Facebook will really be dented, either financially or as a brand. The company declined to comment for this article except to point to a statement issued in response to the boycott, saying Facebook “invest[s] billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe and continuously work[s] with outside experts to review and update our policies,” and that it is taking steps to address hate. The statement added, “we know we have more work to do.” So far, the company hasn’t made major concessions, though. And while its stock price has dipped sharply, Zuckerberg — who has long defended the platform as a space for free expression — reportedly has said advertisers would be back “soon enough.” Analysts likewise say Facebook can weather the storm; most of its ads come from small and medium-size buyers, not the large corporations making boycott headlines, and Bloomberg researchers predicted Monday that the boycotts could cost Facebook only $250 million in ad sales — a sliver of the company’s $77 billion in annual revenue.

But a look at the origins and dynamics of StopHateForProfit suggests the campaign has at least one insight that people often forget when it comes to a tech behemoth with the Silicon Valley sheen of Facebook: At the end of the day, the social network is just an advertising vehicle, with 98 percent of its revenue coming from ads. And like old-line pressure campaigns against TV networks or newspapers, if you can get to the advertisers, the company has to pay attention.

While the boycott came together quickly, its roots trace back to the 2016 election. Amid widespread outrage over the role Facebook had played, one complaint was that Russians were using the site to exploit America’s racial tensions. But the site wasn’t just amplifying them, activists came to believe. It was a petri dish for racism and discrimination; it was growing hate. And, by taking a largely hands-off approach, Facebook wasn’t taking the issue seriously, the activists decided.

In the months after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, civil rights groups and other social justice organizations began quietly comparing notes about their interactions with Facebook and Silicon Valley more broadly.

“The conversations started really informally, just collecting information. But what we learned was that we were getting played by Facebook and other big tech companies,” says Jessica González, co-CEO of the left-leaning media advocacy organization Free Press. “They had a very strategic appeasement strategy, where they gave us breadcrumbs, but in a way that made it look like they were doing such great work when in fact hate and disinformation were rampant on their site.”

The advocates tried to figure out how to get Facebook and other tech companies to take their complaints more seriously. Campaigns to get users to stay away from the platform, or to allow civil rights groups to alert the companies of hateful activities, largely sputtered. In 2018, Facebook announced it would undergo an audit to better understand how it was affecting communities of color and other marginalized groups, led by Laura Murphy, a highly regarded civil-rights advocate. But a pivotal five-week stretch this past fall largely erased whatever good will was left.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late September, Clegg, Facebook’s head of policy and communications, announced the company was exempting politicians’ ads from its fact-checking process, arguing that public should be able to see, and vet, what political leaders say. Clegg told me in an interview at the time that it was long-standing policy but that, “The purpose of it, I hope, was pretty clear, which was: This is what we’re doing ahead of 2020. These are our plans.”

Facebook’s critics took umbrage at both what Clegg said — revealing, they thought, that Facebook failed to grasp the history of American politicians stoking racial divisions — and when he said it. Color of Change, which was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to organize African Americans online, and other groups had been working for months to pull together an event, called “Civil Rights x Tech,” with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; it was scheduled for just two days after Clegg’s speech. At the summit, against a backdrop of soaring brick walls and exposed piping in an events space in Atlanta’s West Midtown, Sandberg and Neil Potts, a Facebook public policy director, were pressed on what Clegg had said and reassured the advocates, González told me.

Two weeks later, Facebook announced that Zuckerberg would deliver a speech at Georgetown University laying out his thinking on “free expression.” He and Clegg previewed the speech with some of the civil rights leaders. Zuckerberg would be doubling down on the politicians’ exemption, while daring to draw a connection between Facebook and the importance of free speech in U.S. civil rights history, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I warned him of the perils of doing that,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Zuckerberg did it anyway, in a dramatic 37-minute speech on Oct. 17 from Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. Afterward, the advocates concluded that the CEO believed, deep in his bones, that his commitment to free expression — even if it aligned him with the most virulent strains of American society — was right, regardless of what Sandberg had said in Atlanta. “[Sandberg] seems sincere. She’s certainly good at her job. But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the buck stops with Zuckerberg and the board of directors,” González told me.

After the speech sparked a firestorm, Zuckerberg convened a dinner with civil rights leaders at his home in Palo Alto in early November. “The last time I was in a room with all of those leaders, the other person at the table was Barack Obama,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, told me last fall. It was a pleasant enough discussion, but he said it solidified for him that civil rights weren’t a priority at Facebook’s highest levels.

For Gupta, the fall of 2019 led her to believe Facebook had embraced a moral equivalence between civil rights groups and far-right conservatives, as two constituencies the company simply needed to placate — an approach she says she saw as part of a “structural deficiency” Facebook was unwilling to address.

The advocates went into the winter more worried than ever, and trying to figure out what to do next.

In late May, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered a revival in the Black Lives Matter movement, then protests, then widespread public outrage, civil rights advocates found themselves on a conference call with Zuckerberg that would turn out to be a key moment in developing the boycott plan.

It started on May 29, when President Trump posted — on both Twitter and Facebook — a note about a possible federal response to protests in Minnesota: “Any difficulty and we will assume control, but when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump would later say he was simply warning that looting can lead to violence, though many saw the tweet as a dog whistle.

Twitter, which already had begun taking a harder line on Trump’s tweets, attached a warning label to the post stating it violated the site’s rules against “glorifying violence,” but that “Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” Zuckerberg, meanwhile, ruled that Trump’s post hadn’t violated his site’s policies on violence speech, and said that if it had, Facebook would have taken it down. “Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook.

The swipe at Twitter, which, in the eyes of advocates, had taken the post more seriously, irked them. “When Mark Zuckerberg criticized Jack Dorsey for that, we realized we had even more of a serious problem than we thought,” Johnson, the NAACP president, told me. Reports that Zuckerberg had talked over his decision with Trump himself didn’t help.

On Monday, June 1, came the conference call. It was a pre-scheduled conversation, in which Zuckerberg planned to talk with civil rights leaders about Facebook’s preparation for the 2020 election, but the topic of Trump’s posts came up too. Trump also had floated theories about how Democrats were trying to “rig” the 2020 election by promoting the use of mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook had said in a statement that it didn’t touch Trump’s post because, when it came in elections, it believed in “robust debate.”

“I’m seeing Mark’s face as he’s trying to explain to Sherrilyn Ifill” — the president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund — “why something isn’t voter suppression. He’s trying to talk down one of the most important voting rights litigators in the country,” Robinson told me. Gupta says she went into the call eager to hear Zuckerberg’s rationale for dealing with the posts. But she told me, “I was completely dissatisfied with it. It was completely confounding and did not make sense.”

For Robinson, it was a turning point. “What are we doing here? I don’t understand why I keep coming to these meetings with you all,” he remembers saying on the call. “I said to [Zuckerberg], and Sheryl, and Nick Clegg, and [global policy director] Joel Kaplan, ‘I feel like we have to do some other pivot.’ I’m saying to them that I’m going to have to another route.” Gupta was similarly frustrated, yet she determined that the advocates couldn’t just “throw up our hands and walk away and just say, ‘Screw it.’”

At those same moments, another set of advocacy groups was beginning to have conversations about where to go next. Among them was Sleeping Giants, a loose, semi-anonymous online collective that calls itself “a campaign to make bigotry and sexism less profitable.” The group had developed a reputation for taking down powerful targets with a fairly simple tactic: show their advertisers exactly what their ad dollars are supporting and quickly gin up, using social media, public pressure to get them to stop. Starting in 2016, the group had waged successful campaigns against Breitbart News and Bill O’Reilly.

Now, as company after company put out its own statement supporting Black Lives Matter amid protests across the country, an opening for a similar strategy emerged with Facebook. If corporations were really serious about fighting racism, then why not back away from advertising on Facebook for hosting racist speech?

Jim Steyer, who heads Common Sense Media, a group focused on improving the media landscape for families and children, knew Matt Rivitz, one of the two leaders of Sleeping Giants, and they had a conversation with Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Along with Common Sense, the ADL began spreading word through progressive political circles that their small coalition was thinking of pushing for a one-month ad boycott of Facebook.

At the same time, Robinson and Color of Change were contemplating something similar and, after hearing about the ADL-tied effort, decided to join forces. Mozilla — the somewhat strange hybrid of tech company and online advocacy organization, which had long criticized Facebook’s handling of its users’ data and privacy — had worked with Common Sense in the past, and got pulled in. Others did too: the NAACP, the media advocacy group Free Press and, later, the League of United Latin American Citizens the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Brenda Victoria Castillo, president of the NHMC, told me her group joined the coalition to make sure Latinx voices were represented — to leverage their strength: “We have $1.7 trillion buying power, and advertisers listen to those statistics.” (The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, led by Gupta, has not joined the boycott call. A spokesperson for the group said no one was available to discuss why.)

“We felt like, ‘What else do we have to lose here?’” the NAACP’s Johnson says. “We’ve been speaking out and meeting with the company to no avail. We thought, ‘We need to do something.’”

Not long after Zuckerberg’s conference call, the campaign had a name: #StopHateForProfit. “It was so quick, it was crazy,” says Rivitz. “It was an idea and then it was, ‘Hold on, we’ve got to talk to other people.’ And then it was, ‘Let’s go.’” They settled on a one-month boycott, a limit they hoped would force corporations to act fast. Plus, even if ad budgets were expected to be down in July anyway, with the country still suffering through the coronavirus and its economic fallout, the tight timeline meant companies could handle whatever lost revenue might come from ditching what is a widely popular means of digital marketing for them.

Just before it launched, the campaign got a prominent boost. At an online event on June 16, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a strong Facebook critic, said, “Advertisers have tremendous leverage” over the company, and “I would say to them, know your power.” The next day, StopHateForProfit trumpeted the same message in an ad in the Los Angeles Times. (While he wouldn’t tell me if it was a coincidence, Steyer pointed out that he and his brother — billionaire and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer — are close with Pelosi and her staff, and called the speaker’s message “very timely.”)

The campaign officially began on June 17, with Sleeping Giants tweeting out the #StopHateForProfit hashtag to its more than 300,000 followers, calling on companies to join. Two days later, North Face was the first to sign up, saying it would stay off Facebook “until stricter policies are put in place to stop racist, violent or hateful content and misinformation from circulating on the platform.” REI and Patagonia quickly followed. The other coalition partners worked their networks, too, both privately and publicly. The ADL, a Jewish organization founded in 1913, began circulating images showing advertisers Facebook posts alongside which their ads were running. One Geico ad, for example, sat next to a post calling financier and philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of anti-Semitism, “the face of evil.”

Robinson told me he and Johnson did a video call with the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s and discussed the ice cream maker not just joining the boycott, but also calling on Unilever, the multinational conglomerate that owns Ben & Jerry’s, to join. On June 23, Ben & Jerry’s put out a powerful statement. Three days later, Unilever announced it would stop advertising on not just Facebook and Instagram, but Twitter, too, at least through the end of the year, citing corporate responsibility pledges and “the polarized atmosphere in the U.S.”

Meanwhile, representatives from Mozilla reached out to the tech world, to explain how the company had stopped advertising on Facebook back in 2018 and “how we’ve reinvested our own marketing dollars,” Mary Ellen Zuckerman, the company’s interim chief marketing officer, told me.

“You know, it’s always, like, ‘fly by the seat of your pants and see what works,’” Rivitz of the launch. But this was a pretty good start.

So far, the advertiser pull-outs represent only a fraction of Facebook’s revenue — analysts said at the start of this week that they still expect the company to have a strong quarter, with some $17 billion in sales — but the PR blitz and creeping sense that the site was becoming toxic to ad buyers got the site’s attention.

The boycott organizers had hoped that keeping the push limited to a month would act as a forming mechanism, pushing Facebook to make quick changes. The coalition came up with 10 specific demands, among them installing a high-level executive with civil-rights expertise, doing away with the fact-checking exemption for politicians’ speech and creating human points of contact for Facebook users experiencing identity-based harassment.

On the same day that the campaign for the boycott launched, someone close to the situation tells me, Facebook called a rush meeting that pulled in officials from across teams — including its marketing, policy and legal operations — to discuss what to do.

Then, on June 24, Sandberg emailed Johnson, Greenblatt and Robinson, according to a copy of the email seen by POLITICO. “At Facebook, we stand against racism and discrimination of any kind,” she wrote. “We are working to understand and address the concerns you outlined in your #StopHateforProfit campaign.” She mentioned the civil rights audit, “which has been in progress for two years,” and asked to continue the discussion in a meeting with her and Chris Cox, a Facebook veteran close to Zuckerberg who recently returned to the company to serve as chief product officer.

Two days later, in a rare move, Zuckerberg opened up the first few minutes of an employee meeting to announce some fairly minor changes to the company’s handling of elections and political content, such as banning posts that falsely claim that that immigration officials will be visiting polling places and labeling some politicians’ posts that violate the site’s rules. The company also announced that it would undergo a marketing audit that would examine, among other things, how safe its platform is for advertisers. And it removed hundreds of accounts associated with the so-called Boogaloo Boys, a far-right movement that sprung up around the George Floyd protests. The company published a list detailing how it is addressing or otherwise thinking about some of what boycott organizers had asked for. Clegg also issued his open letter, saying both that “Facebook does not profit from hate” and “We may never be able to prevent hate from appearing on Facebook entirely, but we are getting better at stopping it all the time.”

The boycott organizers say it’s not enough — that the changes are too small and Facebook’s explanations too vague to satisfy them yet.

In response to Sandberg’s e-mail, the advocates pressed to meet with Zuckerberg himself, not just Sandberg. On July 1, Facebook said it agreed. The conversation is being scheduled, both sides say, for after the Independence Day holiday.

When I asked Robinson what he plans to say, he told me that’s the wrong way to think about it. Facebook requested the meeting, he points out, putting the onus on them: “They have our demands.”

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