Facebook is in the eye of the storm again. The online behemoth is caught up in a backlash against social media companies that are seen as negligent in curbing hate speech and misinformation on their platforms. It is a bit challenging to crack down on those sins when no less than President of the United States is engaged in the same. But it seems the current racial sensitivities in the US cannot be ignored.
Why single out Facebook alone? Well, it is the biggest digital beast out there that is not taming itself. And its business model is profitable only because advertisers attach value to users viewing and clocking content and engaging with others. But since hateful content spreads faster than benign posts, Facebook is being accused of profiting more from the bad than the good out there. Doing something about it means trying to define what is acceptable behavior or free speech online, and that is a divisive subject.
Facebook has been here before. Past attempts in recent years at harnessing the network, amid legislators’ antirust concerns and the platform’s outsized role in Russian influence campaigns that have roiled American democracy, came to naught. And grassroots boycott campaigns generally don’t go anywhere, for consumers are a varied bunch whose response to any call for economic or social boycott is influenced by their level of commitment to underlying cause, the degree of convenience they derive from using a certain product or service, and whether they have support from government or organized interests.
Will this time be different? It is too early to say, but the movement ‘Stop Hate for Profit’, by a coalition of rights and advocacy organizations, has gained traction in less than three weeks. The threat is real as advertisers have joined in. So far, over 750 companies – including Adidas, Coca Cola, Ford, Hershey’s, Microsoft, Starbucks, Target, Unilever, and Volkswagen – have stopped buying ads on Facebook, threatening the company’s $70 billion topline that is overwhelmingly dependent on advertising dollars.
The campaigners are demanding Facebook to make itself accountable by evaluating its platform for hate, bias, and discrimination; by allowing independent audits on content relating to hate speech and misinformation; by cracking down on Facebook groups that spread hate in various forms; by flagging politicians when they engage in misinformation or call for violence on the platform; and, by providing an official recourse to users facing harassment.
So far, other than agreeing to label hate-filled posts by politicians and allowing external audit on hate speech, Zuck has bucked the calls for wholesale change. He is perhaps correct in guessing that the advertisers will come back shortly when the heat subsides; he has also termed this more of a reputational than a financial issue. This is what evidence on the subject suggests as well: the biggest incentive for a company undergoing a boycott to change its behavior is not protecting revenues but securing its brand equity.
Also note that Facebook has more than 8 million advertisers, and even if thousands of companies boycotted the platform, that won’t cut it unless millions of small advertisers do the same. That likelihood is low. Besides, not all top advertisers – such as P&G, HBO, Samsung, Amazon, Sprint, etc. – are on board. They are waiting on the sidelines as they do not want to lose targeted access to so many consumers.
In addition, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump continue to advertise on Facebook. This makes the boycott fragile and lacking political support. Afterall, it is an election year. Do not expect Facebook, or its political and financial patrons, to budge just yet.