The Facebook boycott advertisers have the right company but the wrong diagnosis

It was a big news day for bans: Twitch temporarily banned Donald Trump, Reddit banned The_Donald, YouTube banned a group of far-right creators, and India banned TikTok. But I still haven’t written about the Facebook ad boycott, which accelerated since last I wrote — so let’s talk about that today, and we’ll get to the rest later this week.

I.

A social media advertising boycott that began with some outerwear brands picked up steam over the weekend, and has been joined by some of the giants of consumer brand advertising. Unilever, Verizon, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Clorox are among those who have pulled their ads. (Microsoft did so quietly in May.) Some pulled their ads for a month; some put their ads on an indefinite “pause.” Some pulled their ads from Facebook only; others pulled them from Twitter and YouTube as well. Some joined an official boycott led by a coalition of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP; others nodded respectfully at the boycott but said they were doing their own thing.

Most of the attention has focused on the Facebook-related aspects of the boycott, so let’s start there: What exactly do the advertisers want? The civil rights group put up a web page with some “recommendations,” starting with hiring a “C-suite level executive with civil rights expertise to evaluate products and policies for discrimination, bias, and hate.” (My sense is that Facebook’s chief diversity officer does at least some of this already, if somewhat informally.) It also asked Facebook to “submit to regular, third party, independent audits of identity-based hate and misinformation.” (Like this one?)

Then there’s a part where they ask for their money back:

Provide audit of and refund to advertisers whose ads were shown next to content that was later removed for violations of terms of service.

The remainder is a mix of requests for things Facebook already does or has a policy against (“stop recommending or otherwise amplifying groups or content from groups associated with hate”; “removing misinformation related to voting”); sort of already has a policy against (“Find and remove public and private groups focused on white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism”); and things it thought about doing but decided not to (fact-check political ads).

To be fair, there are some original ideas in here. (My favorite, and something every platform should absolutely do: “Enable individuals facing severe hate and harassment to connect with a live Facebook employee.”) But in their public statements, most of the brands have spoken as if Facebook doesn’t ban hate speech at all.

Take Unilever, which removed ads from Twitter as well as Facebook. Here are Suzanne Vranica and Deepa Seetharaman in the Wall Street Journal:

“Based on the current polarization and the election that we are having in the U.S., there needs to be much more enforcement in the area of hate speech,” Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice president of global media, said.

“Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society,” Unilever said. The ban also will cover Instagram.

If advertising Hellmann’s mayonnaise on Facebook and Twitter was “adding value to people and society” before, it’s news to me. But the larger point is that what Unilever and other brands say they want — “more enforcement” — is so vague as to be nearly meaningless.

For instance, take a look at the statement Adidas and Reebok made when they pulled ads on Facebook and Instagram through July: “Racist, discriminatory, and hateful online content have no place in our brand or in society.” And here is Facebook’s policy on hate speech: “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.”

This would suggest that what is at stake here, to the extent that the boycott is actually about hate speech, is not what is allowed but what is enforced. And if that’s the conversation you want to have, you need to ask different questions. Questions like: How swiftly should violating content be removed? How much of it should be identified by automated systems? And how many mistakes are you willing to tolerate, both for posts removed in error and posts left up in error?

What makes the last one tricky is that given Facebook’s vast size, even a 1 percent error rate means that thousands of mistakes will be made every day. It’s not possible to let 1.73 billion people a day post freely on your services and have them all comply with your rules. Maybe your reaction to that is that it’s OK, some mistakes are fine. Maybe your reaction is that’s terrible, we should get rid of the law that makes all that posting possible. (This is the stated position of the Republican and Democratic candidates for president.)

Or maybe your reaction is, how did Facebook get so big in the first place? Did it maybe buy up its main competition and maneuver other competitors out of the market? Is that why so many of its decisions around content moderation suddenly feel like national emergencies?

So much of what has been discussed over the past week is framed as a discussion about policy and enforcement, when what it’s really about, it seems to me, is size.

II.

The traditional reason to demand an advertiser boycott of a media company is to increase pressure on the media company to take an action by hurting its bottom line. It seems unlikely that this will happen to Facebook, at least not unless the boycott grows by an order of magnitude.

The reason is that there are two main kinds of advertising on Facebook. One is brand advertising, in which a company like Coca-Cola shows you a charming ad about sugar water to make you have warm feelings about it, making you more likely to buy it at some point in the future. The other is direct-response advertising, where a company like Zynga asks you to install a poker app on your phone, or an e-commerce brand asks you to buy a toothbrush right inside the Facebook app.

It’s the brand advertising companies that are leading the boycott. And the problem for them, or anyone rooting for them, is that brand advertisers represent a small minority of Facebook’s customers. Brian Fung explained the situation at CNN:

Of the companies that have joined the boycott so far, only three — Unilever, Verizon and the outdoor equipment retailer REI — rank among the top 100 advertisers on Facebook, according to data compiled by Pathmatics, a marketing intelligence firm. In 2019, Unilever ranked 30th, spending an estimated $42.4 million on Facebook ads. Verizon and REI were 88th and 90th, respectively, spending an estimated $23 million each.

The highest-spending 100 brands accounted for $4.2 billion in Facebook advertising last year, according to Pathmatics data, or about 6% of the platform’s ad revenue.

In other words, brand advertisers could all quit Facebook permanently tomorrow and Facebook would still have more than 90 percent of its revenue. And that’s assuming the brand advertisers won’t eventually come back to Facebook — an assumption that, at least for the moment, no one is making. There’s a reason Facebook has more than 7 million advertisers, and the reason is that the ads work.

III.

AD
At the same time, it’s not like you can’t make a good brand safety argument about pulling your ads from Facebook. Each day journalists bring a fresh set of stories about bad posts found on the site: Boogaloo groups, repackaged racist fear-mongering, Holocaust denial, and so on. And advertisers are antsy about seeing their content next to news on a good day — ask any publisher right now how many of these same brands tweeting fervently in support of Black Lives Matter would take out an ad next to a story about police brutality. I doubt even one would.

And so it would be rational after hearing Facebook say it removed 9.6 million pieces of hate speech from the network in the first quarter of 2020 to decide, you know what, maybe let’s just buy a billboard ad somewhere? How about a radio campaign? I hear podcasts are big these days. Sure, your ad is probably not going to run next to a Holocaust denial post. But if it did, would you even know?

If the real issue underlying the ad boycott is Facebook is too big to effectively moderate its own platform — well, that seems like a harder issue for Facebook to argue. It’s just difficult to imagine the company taking it too seriously unless one of the boycotting brands actually says it out loud.

IV.

Inside Facebook, there’s a sense that all of this will blow over eventually. One, it always has before. Two, Facebook still has the direct-response advertisers on its side. And because it has millions of them, the company is insulated from most of the economic fallout.

Facebookers I’ve spoken with tend to be suspicious of the advertisers’ motives. They have noted that, amid the global pandemic, advertisers have been reducing their advertising spending anyway. (Unilever announced it would do so in April.) They have noted that big advertisers have historically disliked Facebook’s auction-based ad system, which affords them less pricing power than they have over other media buys. The fact that, in a recession, a bunch of advertisers would now like refunds for ads that already ran, does not feel entirely like a coincidence. Going on Twitter to say “Facebook should do better,” and collecting your retweets and getting a nice news story out of it, while saving some money in the process, is perhaps less a profile in courage than it has sometimes been presented as over the past few days.

It seems clear that advertisers want to see some sort of concession from Facebook so they can declare victory and move on. And if Facebook does offer some minor concession, and advertisers do readily accept it and move on, then I think those who are skeptical of the motives behind the boycott can make a case that the whole thing was essentially opportunistic.

V.

That said: there will be more bad posts, on Facebook and everywhere else, and these issues will likely flare up anew. Facebook will again be held liable for the worst things people post on it — at least in the court of public opinion — and advertisers might once again stop their spending.

The much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act mostly protects companies like Facebook from lawsuits over what their users post. But the ad boycott shows that there are other ways to hold companies accountable, and some of those ways may prove to be more damaging than a court case. I’m skeptical that the ad boycott will have much of a long-term effect on Facebook’s stock price. But a week of big brands making statements that they see Facebook as a home for hate speech seems likely to leave a mark.

vergI don’t think the boycott advertisers have diagnosed the real problem here, and I’m sympathetic to those who question their motives. But all that may be beside the point — you don’t always have to be right to land a punch.