Thursday, July 02, 2020

What Pundits Get Wrong About the Facebook Ad Boycott

“Yes, but …”

That’s the opening refrain of many media pundits when asked to comment on the phenomenal success of the #StopHateForProfit boycott, which now counts more than 750 companies pausing their Facebook advertising in July to protest the spread of racism on the platform.

Yes, but the monthly advertising budget of these companies is only a sliver of the ad revenues Facebook takes in each year.

Yes, but Facebook’s stock price, which dropped some eight percent at the outset of the campaign, will rebound soon.

Yes, but this is only a temporary public-relations stunt; these companies will return to advertising on Facebook as usual.

Yes, but.

There’s something missing from these fresh takes: For the past two weeks, the #StopHateForProfit boycott has been shifting the ground under Facebook’s feet in ways that bean counters in the commenting class can’t seem to tabulate.

Culture shift
This shift isn’t about revenues or profits or market valuations. It’s broad and deep, and already taking root in Silicon Valley, where popular social-media sites including Reddit, Twitch and YouTube recently deplatformed dangerous, racist content that had found a home on their services.

Even Facebook blinked, announcing last Friday a handful of policy changes designed to curtail the spread of hateful activities so, in Zuckerberg’s words, “people can hold us accountable for progress.”

Despite the gesture, Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can wait out this boycott without making more meaningful concessions or taking seriously the very real complaints that racial-justice advocates are leveling against the company.

Zuckerberg admitted as much during a company town hall last Friday, where he told employees that he won’t change policies “because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue,” The Information reports.

Yes, but … the real shift is happening outside Facebook headquarters, where it’s spread beyond Zuckerberg’s control. It’s a change to ideas about hate speech and disinformation that Facebook will have to reckon with soon if it hopes to remain culturally relevant.

“We’ve long had this debate on Reddit and internally, weighing the trade-offs between speech and safety,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told the New York Times. “There’s certain speech — for example, harassment and hate — that prevents other people from speaking. And if we have individuals and communities on Reddit that are preventing other people from using Reddit the way we intend, then that means they’re working directly against our mission.”

Practicing what they preach
Reddit’s mission — “to bring community and belonging to everybody in the world” — is not unlike Facebook’s: “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

The only difference is that Reddit now seems dedicated to practicing what it preaches. And that includes evicting those who have weaponized its platform to harass, humiliate, silence and even incite violence against people who are less privileged.

External pressures have brought Reddit and other social-media companies to accept a greater degree of responsibility toward their communities. In 2020, we’ve witnessed “a perfect storm of factors” driving these changes, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan. These include a popular backlash against COVID-19 disinformation on these networks, calls from supporters of the Movement for Black Lives to do a better job addressing bigotry, and disgust with a president who uses his social-media platform to egg on white supremacists and divide people.

The #StopHateForProfit campaign was the tipping point.

For years, social-media platforms have talked a good game about their responsibility to build more open, equitable and democratic communities online. It’s only in the past weeks that public pressure joined forces with advertisers to compel the industry to start owning up to its pledges. The largest and most powerful social-media company, Facebook has been reluctant to move with the times.

A study by the global nonprofit Avaaz found dozens of Facebook groups and pages with content explicitly calling for a race war in the United States. Many of these pages were created after Facebook claimed to have changed its policies to prevent the spread of such content.

Pressure from the outside in
There’s a reason for Facebook’s failure that even industry pundits might understand.

Facebook has long been aware that its ad-driven business model was amplifying hateful and divisive posts over users’ friendlier fare. But it chose to bury an internal report warning against the use of its engagement algorithms in this way.

To stop profiting from hate — and align the company more closely with its mission — Facebook would have to rewire the technology that drives its multi-billion-dollar advertising enterprise.

The pressure to make that happen — and for Facebook to meet the many other demands put forth by the #StopHateForProfit campaign — has to come from the outside in.

Advertisers need to work with advocates to extend and expand the advertising boycott until Facebook changes its hate-powered business model. People need to pressure lawmakers to demand transparency and accountability from Facebook executives. We all need to support employees within Facebook, who are urging their bosses to do better.

Business as usual isn’t good enough. American culture has shifted. Facebook must change, too.


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