One of the world’s biggest advertisers has delivered the clearest signal yet that social media platforms must do more to clean up toxic and hateful content, pulling all U.S. ad spend from Facebook and Twitter through the end of 2020. (This story has been updated with a new response from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg below.)
Unilever’s executive vice-president of global media, Luis Di Como, confirmed the decision to The Wall Street Journal Friday. “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,” he said.
The decision comes amidst growing calls for an advertising boycott of Facebook that has been gaining momentum in the last week. Facebook executives are reportedly reaching out to their biggest advertisers in an effort to convince them not to pause their spending.
Twitter was not included in the calls for a boycott, but has its own well-documented problems with hate speech and other toxic content—though it was also getting credit for recent steps to label some content as problematic.
“Our mission is to serve the public conversation and ensure Twitter is a place where people can make human connections, seek and receive authentic and credible information, and express themselves freely and safely,” said Sarah Personette, Twitter’s VP, global client solutions in a formal statement Friday.
“We have developed policies and platform capabilities designed to protect and serve the public conversation, and as always, are committed to amplifying voices from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups. We are respectful of our partners’ decisions and will continue to work and communicate closely with them during this time.”
“We invest billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe and continuously work with outside experts to review and update our policies,” said Facebook in a statement after Unilever announced its decision. “We know we have more work to do, and we’ll continue to work with civil rights groups, [the Global Alliance for Responsible Media], and other experts to develop even more tools, technology and policies to continue this fight.”
On Thursday, the U.S. telco Verizon joined a growing number of advertisers that will pull their advertising for the month of July to support the Stop Hate for Profit initiative launched by advocacy groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color of Change.
Verizon joins a growing list of brands including Ben & Jerry’s, The North Face and Patagonia that have committed to pause their advertising through the month of July in an attempt to force Facebook to address the spread of toxic content. (Update: Honda’s U.S. division became the first automotive advertiser to join the boycott on Friday afternoon.)
Canadian outdoor clothing company Arc’teryx announced on Tuesday that it would immediately halt all advertising with Facebook and Instagram until “at least the end of July.”
We need a break @facebook. Effective immediately, we will be halting our global advertising with @Facebook & @Instagram until at least the end of July in support of the #stophateforprofit campaign & donating those dollars towards building more inclusive outdoors.
— Arc'teryx (@Arcteryx) June 23, 2020
“Our decision to join the Stop Hate for Profit campaign comes from us putting meaningful action behind our commitment to stand against racism,” said Arc’teryx’s vice-president brand and digital commerce, George Weetman. “We decided to take the money we would have otherwise spent and donate it to one of our partner organizations focused on building a more inclusive outdoors, rather than reinvest it in other advertising channels. Our ad spending on Facebook has been increasing year-over-year but there are viable and cost-effective alternatives to capture new audiences online, including mobile.”
On Thursday, Omnicom-owned agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners announced on Twitter that it, too, would temporarily stop posting. “We are taking this action to protest the platform’s irresponsible propagation of hate speech, racism, and misleading voter information,” the agency said. “We encourage clients and our own people to join us.”
Messaging app Viber also severed ties with Facebook on Thursday, removing all Facebook-related contact points on its app, including Facebook Connect, Facebook SDK and GIPHY, and announcing that it would also pull its advertising.
“Facebook continues to demonstrate poor judgement in understanding its role in today,” said Viber’s CEO, Djamel Agaoua, in a tweet announcing the decision. He went on to accuse it of mishandling users’ data, lacking privacy in its app, and taking an “outrageous stand” in failing to take the necessary steps to protect the public from hateful content.
In a statement, Verizon’s chief media officer John Nitti said that the company would pause advertising until Facebook creates an “acceptable solution” to the growing problem of hate speech on its platform.
According to reporting by CNBC’s advertising/marketing reporter Meg Graham, quoting data from research firm Pathmatics, Verizon spent nearly US$1.5 million on Facebook from May 22 to June 20 (plus another $406,000 on Instagram) making it the 78th largest advertiser on the platform during that period.
In an open letter to advertisers posted on Thursday, the ADL’s CEO and national director Jonathan A. Greenblatt said that its analysts were easily able to find ads running in the vicinity of what he described as “divisive, hateful and conspiratorial content.”
Among the examples he cited: A Verizon ad next to a video from QAnon warning that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning to create civil war “with concentration camps and coffins at the ready,” and a Geico ad appearing alongside an antisemitic and racist conspiracy post.
“Your ad buying dollars are being used by the platform to increase its dominance in the industry at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized communities who are often targets of hate groups on Facebook,” said Greenblatt.
Facebook has long been accused of failing to provide a safe environment for advertisers (and users), but there seems to be newfound urgency and resolve in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent outcry over how social platforms have failed to curb hate speech.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has drawn fire for advocating a hands-off approach, even as the platform has been publicly shamed for allowing the spread of hateful—and sometimes virulently racist—content in the emotionally charged weeks after Floyd’s killing.
“I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg told CNBC reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin on May 28, the day after Twitter identified a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump which claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud as “potentially misleading.”
It also left up a post by Trump stating that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to the protests that sprang up around the world after Floyd’s killing.
However, some experts suggest that the advertiser boycott likely represents more of a PR problem than a financial problem for Facebook. Unilever reportedly spent $42.3 million on Facebook ads last year. Facebook generated US$70 billion in advertising revenue in 2019, with as much as three-quarters of that coming from small to medium-sized business. Many of those businesses might be reluctant to pull their advertising.
Publicly, Facebook has adopted a contrite stance. In response to the Verizon decision, vice-president of global marketing solutions Carolyn Everson issued a statement which said “we deeply respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information.”
The company also continues to point to its ongoing efforts to identify and remove harmful content.
In May, it said that it took down about 4.7 million pieces of content connected to organized hate on its platform, up from 1.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2019.
It also said that it deleted 9.6 million posts containing hate speech, up from 5.7 million in the previous period.
In an effort to stem the spread of misinformation on the platform, Facebook has also introduced a new notification tool that appears whenever a user attempts to post a news story that is more than 90 days old.
“We’ve opened ourselves up to a civil rights audit, and we have banned 250 white supremacist organizations from Facebook and Instagram,” said Facebook in its response to the Unilever news. “The investments we have made in AI mean that we find nearly 90% of Hate Speech we action before users report it to us, while a recent EU report found Facebook assessed more hate speech reports in 24 hours than Twitter and YouTube.”
The company’s recent actions don’t appear to be enough to mollify advertisers, however. “We acknowledge the efforts of our partners, but there is much more to be done, especially in the areas of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarized election period in the U.S.,” said Unilever in a statement obtained by WSJ. “The complexities of the current cultural landscape have placed a renewed responsibility on brands to learn, respond and act to drive a trusted and safe digital ecosystem.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced new changes Friday afternoon to address concerns about voter suppression and hate speech.