Facebook hears rumbles of advertiser rebellion over its unwillingness to check Trump
A social media advertising executive challenged Facebook on Friday over its handling of sensitive political issues, and said a movement is resonating throughout the industry to hold the social network accountable over its policies—like allowing President Trump's divisive messages to stand unchecked. Other platforms like Twitter and Snapchat have penalized the president's accounts, and they have received praise from many corners of the ad world for taking those positions.
On Friday, Elijah Harris, SVP of paid social at IPG Mediabrands, said many brands and ad industry workers were beginning to take a stand against Facebook. More people are starting to find a voice in activism, especially following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The moment is leading advertisers to reconsider how they support social media that may not align with the social justice they advocate, according to Harris, who spoke with Ad Age by phone after posting his protest notice to LinkedIn.
“I spent nine years advocating for Facebook as a platform, convincing my clients to put their dollars there,” Harris says. “And I've been definitely guilty of having my teams default to it on media plans.”
Harris calls this a “reckoning of my own,” and says, “I am now actively going against what I have personally advocated to be the status quo.”
Harris called on the industry to push Facebook to change its policies on fact-checking political messages and monitoring offensive and dangerous speech. “Facebook has to do a better job curbing hate speech and misinformation on the platform,” Harris said. “It is not the same thing as asking them to censor content.”
Harris's LinkedIn message represents a rare direct challenge from Madison Avenue against Facebook, which wields considerable power in the community. “As consumer demand for brands to step up increases, we’re calling on the industry and our client base to take a moment for self-reflection: are we holding ourselves, our media partners and our brands accountable,” Harris said on LinkedIn. “Not because it’s an opportune moment to do so, but because it is fundamentally the right thing to do. It’s time to ask: can we be doing more to create change.”
Harris says he received support and backing from IPG Mediabrands to issue his Facebook notice. He says the agency is involved in discussions with clients about concerns around Facebook, and how advertising there reflects on their values.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended his policies that offer wide leeway for political speech. Since Floyd’s death, Zuckerberg has expressed sympathy with the cause of the nationwide protests while standing by decisions to allow certain inflammatory rhetoric from the president. Last month, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook had a role to play in the changes already occurring.
“As hard as it was to watch, I'm grateful that Darnella Frazier posted on Facebook her video of George Floyd's murder because we all needed to see that,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We need to know George Floyd's name. But it's clear Facebook also has more work to do to keep people safe and ensure our systems don't amplify bias.”
Facebook and Instagram were also used as platforms to organize protests. Last week, Instagram users showed solidarity during “Blackout Tuesday,” which encouraged users to post black squares in their feeds. The protests have led brands to rethink how they approach social media while the conversation is turned to such important matters. Last week, ad industry leaders told Ad Age that brands were being cautious and even pausing their spending during the difficult week.
On Friday, Carolyn Everson, VP of global business group at Facebook, sent a statement to Ad Age saying the company has talked with advertisers about how it can work with them more constructively. Facebook acknowledged that brands had pulled back advertising during moments like Blackout Tuesday, but it has not seen a wider movement protesting the social network.
“We have more active advertisers on our services than ever before, demonstrating that businesses continue to rely on personalized advertising in the face of a challenging economy,” Everson said in her statement. “We saw a small amount of advertisers pause around Blackout Tuesday, and it’s largely recovered now. We remain in active conversations with marketers about how together, we can be a force for good to fight racial injustice.”
There have been signs that advertisers are reconsidering the platform, with a potential backlash brewing.
This month, a group called Detox Facebook popped up on Twitter calling out brands that appear on the social network. It already has 5,000 followers. The group has tried to shame brands like Coca-Cola for marketing on Facebook while also adopting messages of support for racial justice.
Coca-Cola was not immediately available for comment.
Facebook generated $70 billion in ad revenue in 2019 and it is one of the biggest partners for brands and agencies. Facebook also is a major spender on advertising, and develops its own marketing through top agencies, including Wieden+Kennedy, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, BBDO and Droga5.
Critics have hammered Facebook, especially, over its unwillingness to check Trump’s messages, like the president’s post last month that suggested shooting protesters. Twitter and Snapchat penalized Trump's accounts but Facebook took a more defiant posture, unwilling to interfere with political speech.
Zuckerberg has been insistent that the social network should not cast itself as the “arbiter of truth.” Zuckerberg committed to that argument last year when he made a speech about free expression at Georgetown University, where he outlined his concerns about making Facebook the judge of what should—and should not—be allowed in the political conversation.
It's not just Facebook that has contended with these topics of racial justice and permitting commentary that many people find worrying. This week, James Bennet, the opinion editor of The New York Times, resigned over printing an opinion piece from Senator Tom Cotton, which advocated sending in troops to quell protests. The column, which was reminiscent of Trump's musings, led to a revolt in The Times newsroom.
Zuckerberg met with civil rights leaders, who argued that the president's message about shooting protesters was rooted in racism. CNBC reported the leaders were “stunned” following their discussion.
Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest earlier this month, as demonstrations against police brutality erupted around the rest of the country. This week, presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden sent an open letter to Zuckerberg and Facebook calling for the company to fact-check Trump.
At the same time, conservative lawmakers and Trump have put social media companies on notice not to moderate political speech. Trump even issued an executive order last month demanding social media platforms leave him alone and threatened to unleash the Federal Trade Commission on them.
Facebook has been trying to address the social unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. Zuckerberg said the company would donate $10 million to groups supporting racial justice.
Last week, Zuckerberg issued a post on Facebook outlining ways the company was reviewing its policies to moderate content and weed out dangerous users, but also said the company needed to proceed cautiously. He worried about the consequences of empowering teams to remove disagreeable speech, not just hatred. “We have so far to go to overcome racial injustice in America and around the world, and we all have a responsibility and opportunity to change that,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I believe our platforms will play a positive role in this, but we have work to do to make sure our role is as positive as possible.”
On the same day that Harris released his Facebook protest, Interpublic Group of Cos. CEO-Chairman Michael Roth delivered a memo to staff that revealed a lack of diversity within the agency. Harris works for IPG Mediabrands, a division of IPG.
IPG disclosed that 2.6 percent of its executive leadership was “Black or African American.” It was one of the first major agencies to disclose such stats, and there have been growing calls throughout advertising for greater transparency and better hiring practices.
In his LinkedIn post, Harris challenged advertisers to support more publishers that are run by black and indigenous leaders and people of color. “Recognize that our industry has a long way to go to realize diversity and inclusion efforts,” he wrote. “Pair this drive for change and accountability from Facebook with a concrete action plan for equality and representation within your own organization.”