Inside the Ad Boycott That Has Facebook on the Defensive

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It is also a behind-the-scenes triumph for a novel coalition of civil rights groups and other advocacy organizations — the architects of the #StopHateForProfit campaign that many of the boycotting companies have signed onto.

Interviews with leaders of the nine coalition partners reveal how the groups spun up a boycott idea in a matter of days, responding to the George Floyd protests late this spring and using public energy to join together several long-simmering, frustrated efforts to hold Facebook to account for its content. They lobbied corporate leaders in private and, in some cases, shamed companies on social media to join the effort.

“[Facebook] is a breeding ground for racial hate groups,” says Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, one of the groups that made up the coalition. Referring to Zuckerberg, he said, “You can’t reason with the guy.”

In short order, the coalition has emerged as perhaps Facebook’s most formidable antagonist, when little else — not Congress, not European regulators, not public declarations by celebrities that they were once and truly deleting their Facebook accounts — has had much effect on how the site operates. And their campaign might offer a blueprint for how activist groups can tackle a modern tech giant: fusing novel pressure tactics with the weight of legacy civil rights groups.

It remains to be seen whether Facebook will really be dented, either financially or as a brand. The company declined to comment for this article except to point to a statement issued in response to the boycott, saying Facebook “invest[s] billions of dollars each year to keep our community safe and continuously work[s] with outside experts to review and update our policies,” and that it is taking steps to address hate. The statement added, “we know we have more work to do.” So far, the company hasn’t made major concessions, though. And while its stock price has dipped sharply, Zuckerberg — who has long defended the platform as a space for free expression — reportedly has said advertisers would be back “soon enough.” Analysts likewise say Facebook can weather the storm; most of its ads come from small and medium-size buyers, not the large corporations making boycott headlines, and Bloomberg researchers predicted Monday that the boycotts could cost Facebook only $250 million in ad sales — a sliver of the company’s $77 billion in annual revenue.

But a look at the origins and dynamics of StopHateForProfit suggests the campaign has at least one insight that people often forget when it comes to a tech behemoth with the Silicon Valley sheen of Facebook: At the end of the day, the social network is just an advertising vehicle, with 98 percent of its revenue coming from ads. And like old-line pressure campaigns against TV networks or newspapers, if you can get to the advertisers, the company has to pay attention.

While the boycott came together quickly, its roots trace back to the 2016 election. Amid widespread outrage over the role Facebook had played, one complaint was that Russians were using the site to exploit America’s racial tensions. But the site wasn’t just amplifying them, activists came to believe. It was a petri dish for racism and discrimination; it was growing hate. And, by taking a largely hands-off approach, Facebook wasn’t taking the issue seriously, the activists decided.

In the months after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, civil rights groups and other social justice organizations began quietly comparing notes about their interactions with Facebook and Silicon Valley more broadly.

“The conversations started really informally, just collecting information. But what we learned was that we were getting played by Facebook and other big tech companies,” says Jessica González, co-CEO of the left-leaning media advocacy organization Free Press. “They had a very strategic appeasement strategy, where they gave us breadcrumbs, but in a way that made it look like they were doing such great work when in fact hate and disinformation were rampant on their site.”

The advocates tried to figure out how to get Facebook and other tech companies to take their complaints more seriously. Campaigns to get users to stay away from the platform, or to allow civil rights groups to alert the companies of hateful activities, largely sputtered. In 2018, Facebook announced it would undergo an audit to better understand how it was affecting communities of color and other marginalized groups, led by Laura Murphy, a highly regarded civil-rights advocate. But a pivotal five-week stretch this past fall largely erased whatever good will was left.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late September, Clegg, Facebook’s head of policy and communications, announced the company was exempting politicians’ ads from its fact-checking process, arguing that public should be able to see, and vet, what political leaders say. Clegg told me in an interview at the time that it was long-standing policy but that, “The purpose of it, I hope, was pretty clear, which was: This is what we’re doing ahead of 2020. These are our plans.”

Facebook’s critics took umbrage at both what Clegg said — revealing, they thought, that Facebook failed to grasp the history of American politicians stoking racial divisions — and when he said it. Color of Change, which was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to organize African Americans online, and other groups had been working for months to pull together an event, called “Civil Rights x Tech,” with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; it was scheduled for just two days after Clegg’s speech. At the summit, against a backdrop of soaring brick walls and exposed piping in an events space in Atlanta’s West Midtown, Sandberg and Neil Potts, a Facebook public policy director, were pressed on what Clegg had said and reassured the advocates, González told me.

Two weeks later, Facebook announced that Zuckerberg would deliver a speech at Georgetown University laying out his thinking on “free expression.” He and Clegg previewed the speech with some of the civil rights leaders. Zuckerberg would be doubling down on the politicians’ exemption, while daring to draw a connection between Facebook and the importance of free speech in U.S. civil rights history, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I warned him of the perils of doing that,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Zuckerberg did it anyway, in a dramatic 37-minute speech on Oct. 17 from Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. Afterward, the advocates concluded that the CEO believed, deep in his bones, that his commitment to free expression — even if it aligned him with the most virulent strains of American society — was right, regardless of what Sandberg had said in Atlanta. “[Sandberg] seems sincere. She’s certainly good at her job. But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the buck stops with Zuckerberg and the board of directors,” González told me.