What the Facebook Boycott Really Meant

Targeting media companies with advertising boycotts has a long tradition. Religious groups targeted advertisers who supported the 1972 abortion episode of Maude. The LGBT community targeted Dr. Laura in 2001 for Schlessinger’s repeated criticisms of homosexuality, contributing to her show being cancelled in a scant 7 months. More recently, similar tactics applied to Fox News programming successfully led to the demise of programming like The Glenn Beck Show and The O’Reilly Factor.

 

#StopHateForProfit—a campaign calling for advertisers to boycott Facebook during the month of July—continues in this time-honored tradition. On its face, it is a simple case of transferring an offline protest strategy to an online publisher, much like Sleeping Giants did when targeting Breitbart advertisers after the 2016 election.

 

This boycott is different. It isn’t a fight against a publisher. It’s a fight against a platform pretending it’s not a publisher.

 

#StopHate attacks the fundamental problem with Facebook: a single company’s outsized control over the media space and a single man’s outsized control over that company. In 2019, digital advertising spending worldwide was $333 billion. That same year, Google’s advertising revenue (including $15 billion from YouTube) was $134 billion and Facebook’s was $70.7 billion. Combined, these two companies account for more than 61% of global digital advertising dollars. Advertising Age estimates that in 2020, digital advertising will account for 52% of spending, surpassing all other media combined for the first time. Those advertising dollars account for 99% of Facebook’s revenue. Mark Zuckerberg, someone who has never done anything but run Facebook, controls 57.9% of the company. He has shown that he will not let anything impede  revenue growth, not racist advertising practices, or misogynistic advertising behaviors or unethical research —controllable business practices forced to change only under public scrutiny. Misinformation and hate speech—factors Facebook could control as well but doesn’t because divisiveness drives engagement—have proliferated unimpeded leading to mass killings in Myanmar, to the hijacking of our election in 2016, and now to violent attacks against Blacks on U.S. streets.

 

Why hasn’t there been an outcry before now? The answer is simple: Facebook isn’t like other media. Most people understand that we don’t all see the same content, but they don’t consider the implications of that difference. People who see racist attacks on Facebook are really okay with seeing racist attacks. The platform was created to do that and through AI is teaching itself how to do that even better. Corporate marketers and ad executives, on the other hand, simply won’t see it. No one is offended, so no one complains. Digital advertising adds to that opacity. Ads are placed using programmatic ad buying. Simply put, this means that ads are bought using a computer program that serves ads to a site based on who you want to target, the creative you have available, and whether there is space on the site. This is all done in milliseconds. Millions of ads going to millions of places on the internet and no one looking at it. Advertisers can screen out for some types of objectional content, like pornography, but hate speech is more difficult to discern so it goes unchecked. Most marketers simply don’t know what content their advertising is running next to. If you have any doubt about that, Verizon made the decision to suspend their advertising after being informed by the Anti-Defamation League that their ad appeared next to content created by conspiracy group, QAnon, suggesting that FEMA was poised to put people in concentration camps. Unlike traditional media, this system was constructed to maximize ad dollars, not content, and the consequences have been allowed to remain hidden.

Facebook has shown itself to be a bad actor over and over. They work under the axiom of “beg forgiveness, don’t ask permission.” After being called out for manipulating users’ emotions, they said they wouldn’t do it anymore. Same for allowing advertisers to screen for “ethnic affinities,” a veiled term for face. When called in front of Congress because of a data breach leading to 70 million Americans having their information compromised, Zuckerberg pretended not to understand how his own business worked and then followed that up by launching its biggest advertising campaign ever showing feel good ads promoting how the platform is a community. Most galling is even now they claim to support the boycott.

Some trade press is dismissing the campaign, even while it gains traction. Their tsk-tsking comes from believing that the boycott will have no impact on Facebook’s bottom line. They argue that advertisers will have a hard time leaving Facebook because of its efficiency and reach. These folks are missing the point. Facebook has successfully flown under the radar because no one has systematically brought attention to what they are doing, how they are funding what they are do, and what people can do to fight against it.

The time for a social media reckoning has come. Advertisers and outlets have cowered before Mark Zuckerberg or Donald Trump. They can’t afford to do that anymore, and they know it. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, put guardrails on the president’s misinformation, and the site stopped accepting political advertising. When Facebook did nothing in response to the president’s post saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” employees staged a virtual walkout and two software engineers outright quit.

Already, dozens of advertisers have signed on to this campaign sponsored by NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change, among others. Some are small entrepreneurial companies, the kind that Facebook likes to promote that it serves. Early supporters were socially minded organizations one would expect to see, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher, and Patagonia. A growing number of ad agencies have pulled their own advertising from the site and suggested their clients join the boycott. Bigger accounts, like Verizon, are adding themselves to the list. Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser, has said they haven’t ruled out joining the boycott. I have no doubt we will see more as July 1 approaches.

In the days of television boycotts, the goal was to change the behavior of the network and their on-air talent. The metrics for calculating success in this case are different. It is not about taking off one piece of offensive content. It is about fundamentally changing the platform. There are two says that can happen: regulation (which will take too long to save democracy) or hit them in the pocketbook. This boycott targets revenue, but it also is an important wedge for influencing the lawmakers. Facebook calls itself a data and technology company. It is not. If you decide—by human decision or by algorithm—what people see or do not see, then you are making editorial decisions and you are a publisher. In forcing the company to address content issues on its platform, the organizers of #StopHate are making Facebook look a whole lot more like a media company.

Facebook is a media company and it needs to be regulated like one. This means updating existing telecommunications legislation. Alternatively, or in addition, the company could be broken up under antitrust law the same way the big oil companies were broken up at the begin of the last century. In the meantime, we ask advertisers to pull their dollars from the platform, and, importantly, as consumers we can support the brands that do pull out. We can also boycott the advertisers who stay on the site, but we’ll have to find them first and we know exactly who to ask to help us do that.

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