Facebook ad boycott organizers: Meeting with Zuckerberg was ‘disappointing’


Facebook is facing more pressure from advertisers to combat hate speech and misinformation. 

Graphic by Pixabay; illustration by CNET

After meeting with Facebook executives on Tuesday, civil rights activists behind a growing advertising boycott of the world’s largest social network said they aren’t convinced Facebook is doing enough to combat hate speech.

Last month, a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press and Color of Change, called on businesses to “hit pause on hate” and not advertise on Facebook during the month of July. Tuesday morning, activists met virtually with executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg and with members of the policy team.

“#StopHateForProfit didn’t hear anything today to convince us that Zuckerberg and his colleagues are taking action. Instead of committing to a timeline to root out hate and disinformation on Facebook, the company’s leaders delivered the same old talking points to try to placate us without meeting our demands,” Free Press Co-CEO Jessica J. González said in a statement.

Facebook said it has rules against hate speech on its platform but is trying to do more to combat hateful content and misinformation. After the meeting, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone shared a statement from the company in a tweet

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform,” the statement said. “They want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we. That’s why it’s so important that we work to get this right.” 

Despite Facebook’s vow to do better, civil rights activists say they haven’t seen enough meaningful change, especially in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Conspiracy theories and misinformation about Floyd have spread on social networks, including false claims that Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros orchestrated protests over Floyd’s death.

Campaign organizers have a list of 10 steps they want Facebook to take. Some of the recommendations include allowing people facing severe hate or harassment to talk directly to a Facebook employee, hiring a C-suite-level executive with a civil rights background, and notifying businesses if their ads are shown next to content Facebook pulled down that violated its rules.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said during a press conference that Facebook didn’t provide specific commitments, time frames or clear outcomes. “Today we saw little and heard just about nothing,” he said.

Greenblatt said Facebook executives talked about the nuances that come with moderating content and how they’re on a “journey” and have been doing a better job at combating hate speech. “There is no journey, if you will, on fighting hate. This is not an issue with two sides. There’s nothing partisan or political about pushing back on prejudice,” he said.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said that Facebook executives showed up to the meeting expecting “an A for attendance” but that wasn’t enough. The groups expected clear answers to their recommendations.

More than 970 businesses and organizations have joined the campaign, according to a list compiled by advocacy group Sleeping Giants, one of the campaign’s organizers. Participants include a variety of businesses, such as outdoor clothing brand The North Face, consumer goods giant Unilever and telecom leader Verizon. 

Facebook has more than 8 million active advertisers and raked in $70 billion in revenue last year, so it’s unlikely the boycott will make a big dent in the company’s finances. Still, marketing experts said the boycott could harm Facebook’s image, which is already tarnished by a series of privacy scandals and controversial content moderation decisions.

The company has come under fire, including from its own employees, for not removing a protest-related post by President Donald Trump that advocacy groups and other critics said could incite violence. Facebook left the post up because it determined that Trump’s remark “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” didn’t violate its rules. Facebook rival Twitter veiled Trump’s tweet with a notice saying it violated the site’s rules that prohibit glorifying violence. Users could, however, still click a button to view the president’s remarks if they chose to. 

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with more than 2.6 billion monthly active users. Unlike other platforms, though, the company “overly prioritizes its political interest” in content moderation decisions, Robinson said. 

The campaign puts Facebook in a tricky spot because the company doesn’t want to appear as if it’s making changes in response to pressure from advertisers. Zuckerberg told employees that he expects advertisers will return to the social network “soon enough” and that the company won’t change its “policies or approach on anything” because of a threat to any percentage of its revenue. Sandberg said Tuesday that any changes the company makes aren’t “for financial reasons or advertiser pressure, but because it is the right thing to do.”

On Wednesday, Facebook is expected to release a finalized independent civil rights audit, which is a two-year review of its policies and practices

Greenblatt signaled that the Facebook ad boycott will continue past July if the company doesn’t do more to combat hate speech. 

“I believe this campaign will continue to grow,” He said. “It will get more global. It will get more intense until we get the answers that I think we’re looking for.”

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