The high cost of hate - Zuckerberg blinks as ad boycott knocks $56 billion from Facebook’s value, but is it too little, too late? 

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 29, 2020
Facebook's inaction over the dangers of hate crime and Fake News on its platform has led to advertisers voting with their budgets. Is this the tipping point for social media platforms to step up to their responsibilities?

hate speech
(Pixabay )

Brands have a duty to help build a trusted and safe digital eco-system. 

A single tweet from Unilever - and one that contributed to knocking $56 billion (so far) from the market value of Facebook and triggered CEO Mark Zuckerberg into facing up how his firm does - and still does not - tackle the issue of hate speech and Fake News on its social media platform. 

Unilever was only one of more than 100 firms, including Honda, Coca Cola, Levi Srauss, Verizon  and Ben & Jerry’s, to announce late last week that it is suspending advertising from Facebook in support of #StopHateForProfit, a campaigning coalition made up of the likes of the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change and the NAACP.

Coca-Cola CEO and Chairman James Quincey summed up the mood of advertisers: 

We will take this time to reassess our advertising policies to determine whether revisions are needed. We also expect greater accountability and transparency from our social media partners.'

That sort of line in the sand - and Coca Cola was among the more restrained - was followed by Zuckerberg, who saw his own personal worth decline by the best part of $7 billion, taking to Facebook Live to announce new measures around “harmful” and “hateful” content, including posts from politicians that are “newsworthy”.  

On the face of it, that’s a pretty big volte face from the man who attracted lots of criticism who has consistently argued that social media firms should not be “arbiters of truth” and insisted that Facebook would not censor political content

But it seems that it’s amazing what a multi-billion dollar blow to the bottom line can do to focus the attention as the party line now is: 

We will soon start labelling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case. We’ll allow people to share this content to condemn it, just like we do with other problematic content - because this is an important part of how we discuss what's acceptable in our society - but we'll add a prompt to tell people that the content they're sharing may violate our policies. 

Zuckerberg added: 

We already restrict certain types of content in ads that we allow in regular posts, but we want to do more to prohibit the kind of divisive and inflammatory language that has been used to sow discord. So today we're prohibiting a wider category of hateful content in ads. Specifically, we're expanding our ads policy to prohibit claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others,…We're also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them.

Don’t threaten us…

For clarity, it should noted that at no point did Zuckerberg directly refer to the advertising boycott in his address. Indeed, the company seems keen to be seen not to be bowing to commercial pressure. In a 1,600 word memo to advertisers from Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s VP of Global Business Solutions, warns them:

I...really hope by now you know that we do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure. We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests…Boycotting in general is not the way for us to make progress together.” 

So, the loss of $56 billion (and counting) in market value accompanied by the hideous optics of being called out by some of the largest advertisers in the world is purely co-incidental to the timing of Zuckerberg’s Pauline conversion to the moderation cause, a shift which was it seems weighing heavy on the Facebook corporate conscience anyway. As the CEO himself pitched it: 

The 2020 elections were already shaping up to be heated -- and that was before we all faced the additional complexities of voting during a pandemic and protests for racial justice across the country. During this moment, Facebook will take extra precautions to help everyone stay safe, stay informed, and ultimately use their voice where it matters most -- voting.

Many of the changes we're announcing today come directly from feedback from the civil rights community and reflect months of work with our civil rights auditors, led by noted civil rights and liberties expert Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, a partner at the respected civil rights law firm of Relman & Colfax. Facebook stands for giving people a voice -- especially people who have previously not had as much voice or power to share their experiences.

And don’t let any of this for one second lull anyone into thinking that this is another iteration of the by-now multi-year mea culpa tour upon which Facebook has been embarked since Cambridge Analytica and all that associated unpleasantness. In fact, Zuckerberg went out of his way once again to demand recognition for Facebook’s efforts to play nicely with the rest of the world:: 

[A] study from the EU showed that Facebook acts faster and removes a greater percent of hate speech on our services than other major internet platforms, including YouTube and Twitter. We've invested heavily in both AI systems and human review teams so that now we identify almost 90% of the hate speech we remove before anyone even reports it to us. We've also set the standard in our industry by publishing regular transparency reports so people can hold us accountable for progress. We will continue investing in this work and will commit whatever resources are necessary to improve our enforcement We believe there is a public interest in allowing a wider range of free expression in people's posts than in paid ads…I'm committed to making sure Facebook remains a place where people can use their voice to discuss important issues, because I believe we can make more progress when we hear each other.

Like? Don’t like? 

Grandstanding and self-serving justification aside, what does this latest change of heart mean in practical terms? Well, that remains to be seen in the long term, but one immediate manifestation came in the form of a 'violent or graphic content' warning label that was slapped on a Republican National Committee (RNC) election campaign video which features footage of police vehicles set on fire with accompanying snippets of speeches made by the likes of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden . 

That followed the removal earlier this month of online ads from the Trump re-election team that carried an inverted red triangle image, a symbol previously used by the Nazis to designate political prisoners, including those who rescued Jews. 

So is this genuinely a ‘reformed’ Facebook facing up a new acceptance of its responsibilities?  Or is It another cynical roll of the dice to try to stem any further damage to the market value?  For its part, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign organizers aren’t convinced, stating bluntly: 

We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meagre steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now.

Meanwhile a tweet from Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change, dismissed Zuckerberg’s words as “11 minutes of wasted opportunity to commit to change”. 

And if Facebook hoped that Zuckerberg’s words would appease advertisers, the words of Levi Strauss & Co CMO Jen Say will bring no comfort: 

We want to see meaningful progress towards ending the amplification of misinformation and hate speech and better addressing of political advertisements and content that contributes to voter suppression. While we appreciate that Facebook announced some steps in this direction today, it's simply not enough.

Ten step program for Zuckerberg

So what more can Facebook do? Stop Hate for Profit helpfully has an answer to that question in the form of a ten step program built around principles of accountability, decency and support : 

  1. Establish and empower permanent civil rights infrastructure including a C-suite level executive with civil rights expertise to evaluate products and policies for discrimination, bias, and hate. 
  2. Submit to regular, third-party, independent audits of identity-based hate and misinformation with summary results published on a publicly accessible website. 
  3. Provide audit of and refund to advertisers whose ads were shown next to content that was later removed for violations of terms of service. 
  4. Find and remove public and private groups focused on white supremacy, militia, anti-semitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism.
  5. Adopt “common-sense changes” to policies that will help stem radicalization and hate on the platform.
  6. Stop recommending or otherwise amplifying groups or content from groups associated with hate, misinformation or conspiracies to users.
  7. Create an internal mechanism to automatically flag hateful content in private groups for human review. .
  8. Ensure accuracy in political and voting matters by eliminating the politician exemption, removing misinformation related to voting; and prohibiting calls to violence by politicians in any format.
  9. Create expert teams to review submissions of identity-based hate and harassment.
  10. Enable individuals facing severe hate and harassment to connect with a live Facebook employee.

The pressure group concludes: 

These ten steps will not be enough to address all of Facebook’s problems, but they would be a start:

My take

In the interests of fairness, it should  be noted that it’s not just Facebook in the firing line here; other social media miscreants are available. But it is the case that Facebook through its proudly-stated inactions in the past has made itself the biggest target - and deservedly so. That said, the likes of Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Unilever are casting a baleful eye over all social media providers, including Twitter, and expecting to see improvements. 

Never a great corporate communicator at the best of times, Zuckerberg in his 11 minute video had the look of a rabbit in the headlights. For Facebook’s anointed Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg, this is another PR headache to contend with and one that will only get worse as November’s US Presidential Election gets closer.  In its boycott statement, Ben & Jerry’s refers to Facebook’s need to act to prevent:

being used to divide our nation, suppress voters, foment and fan the flames of racism and violence, and undermine our democracy.

In truth, Zuckerberg’s words on Friday ticked a few boxes, but didn’t go nearly far enough to shut down this latest crisis. Enforcing a consistent policy in this area is, of course, a massive challenge and one that Facebook - and others - have done their best not to face up to until now. Last week saw advertisers talk with their wallets as civil liberties groups threw their collective weight behind campaigning, while critics began arguing about freedom of speech and supposedly-denied  First Amendment principles. Accusations of censorship will fly in the coming months as election-related posts are tagged or highlighted for concerns about accuracy or inappropriate content. And those accusations will be accompanied by implicit and increasingly explicit threats of regulatory reprisal.

Meanwhile more advertisers will undoubtedly add their names to the boycott list - those dominos are toppling - and heap more pressure on Facebook’s bottom line - and there’s around $70 billion worldwide at stake  here as the boycott goes global. Can Facebook hold its nerve and back its hunch that the power of the platform's reach will win out and the assumption that advertisers will drop the boycott in a month or so? Or will advertisers maintain their stance and drive Facebook and others into genuinely transformative change? 

I’ve seen the issue of tackling hate speech and fake news on social media platforms regularly referred to as a Pandora’s Box - once opened, all its problems fly out and the lid can’t be put back on, so better all round not to open it in the first place. Personally I think I’d rather opt for another reference - Facebook has tied itself up in a Gordian Knot of its own making through its previous refusal to face up to its own responsibilities for how its platform is used and abused. The good news - Gordian Knots can be untied. Whether the person to do that currently sits at the top of Facebook is far from obvious. But I can hazard a guess… 

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