Facebook boycott reveals triad shaping public square


[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

By Kalev Leetaru
Real Clear Politics

On Tuesday, as the number of advertisers boycotting Facebook surpassed more than 400 brands, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally agreed to meet with civil rights leaders organizing the “Stop Hate for Profit” movement. The company is no stranger to such boycotts, with one in 2013 over gender-based hate speech yielding meaningful changes to its policies, while a 2018 effort over data privacy fizzled out. A closer look at all three boycotts shows the challenges ahead.

In 2013, several women’s rights organizations drew attention to the widespread presence on Facebook of content glorifying violence against women and the fact that the ads of major brands, including women-centered brands, were appearing beside these posts. Launching the “#FBRape” ad boycott campaign, they convinced a number of major advertisers to pull their campaigns from the platform and focus public attention on the prevalence of such content across Facebook.

The social media giant initially defended the posts, arguing to NBC News that “we occasionally see people post distasteful or disturbing content, or make crude attempts at humor. While it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies.”

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However, after the public outcry grew, Facebook eventually relented and banned overt calls for violence against women. Yet a more diffuse boycott five years later over data privacy in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal had little impact.

The 2013 boycott had a single concrete demand: remove posts encouraging or celebrating violence against women. Moreover, the posts in question were unlikely to be of interest to advertisers. The 2018 boycott, in contrast, did not have any single actionable demand — and addressing data privacy in a meaningful way would impact Facebook’s bottom line, so in the end the company declined to take action and advertisers eventually returned.

The “#StopHate” boycott of the past few weeks is a mixture of the two. Like the 2013 boycott it focuses on hate speech and threats of violence. Yet rather than limit itself narrowly to “hate,” it demands the removal of a wide-ranging assortment of topics, including “white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism” as well as “eliminating the politician exemption; removing misinformation related to voting; and prohibiting calls to violence by politicians in any format.”

In grouping racism in with vaccination, climate change, “disinformation,” “political misinformation” and speech by elected officials, #StopHate begins to hew closer to the 2018 boycott in demanding wide-ranging existential changes to Facebook’s policies. Moreover, the demands to limit speech by elected officials during an election year also risk plunging the company into a repeat of 2016, when its platform was accused of altering the outcome of the presidential election.

At the same time, the more than 400 advertisers participating in the current boycott represent a relatively small fraction of Facebook’s advertiser pool. Many had already pulled back on their ad spending as the economy collapsed, and with reopenings sputtering, they may see the boycott as an opportunity both to further reduce that spending at a time it is less likely to generate business while also  generating publicity and consumer goodwill by virtue signaling.

Zuckerberg alluded to as much in an internal company town hall last week in which he noted that the boycotting brands amounted to just “a small percent of our revenue” and that the company would not be taking further action beyond the changes it had already announced.

The most influential change #StopHate could extract from Facebook is also the one least likely to be conceded: providing an “audit of and refund to advertisers whose ads were shown next to content that was later removed for violations of terms of service.” I have asked Facebook about this for the last four years myself, with the company declining to comment or remaining silent each time.

Why would this single change be so existential to the company? If advertisers knew just how often their content appeared next to truly horrific speech that leaves even hardened content moderators with lasting psychological trauma, it would force brands to make hard decisions about whether to continue supporting the spread of that content through their ad dollars.

In many ways the current boycott is a referendum on where the power of modern society lies. Silicon Valley is typically held as the ultimate arbiter of speech in today’s digital society. Yet those all-powerful social platforms are completely dependent on advertising revenue, meaning that brands hold enormous sway over their policies by dictating what kinds of speech are monetizable. In turn, the media helps direct public outrage and in doing so selects the causes that brands are pressured to join, while also being subject itself to the whims of the platform’s algorithms. Together, social platforms, advertisers and the press form an interdependent triad that exerts enormous control over the public square that undergirds democracy.

If Facebook prevails in the current boycott, it will cement its role as absolute and unfettered arbiter of speech. If advertisers and the press manage to exact meaningful concessions from the company this time, it will cement them as a new de facto oversight board. In the balance is democracy itself.

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