How Facebook is dealing with the boycott that started with a secretive Twitter account shaming brands
The same day online activists swarmed social media in an uproar over police in Buffalo, New York shoving an elderly protester and cracking his head open, a new group appeared on Twitter called "Detox Facebook." The anti-Facebook account tweeted: "Patricia Arquette, have you seen this?"
The account shared a slickly edited video interspersing images of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with footage of police clashing with protesters.
"Trump is inciting violence. On a platform controlled [by] one man: Mark Zuckerberg. Enough is enough. #BlackLivesMatter. Join us. Tell your favourite brands #WeDontBuyHate. Together we can turn off the advertising money & detox Facebook," the anonymous account tweeted.
If there was an unofficial start to the wave of brand boycotts lining to oppose Facebook, which starts today, this was it.
Detox Facebook had one goal, to shame brands into withdrawing support from the social network. It has amassed close to 10,000 Twitter followers, some of them influential members of advertising and media. The group was trying to catch the attention of Arquette, who they imagined would be sympathetic to the cause. Afterall, Arquette is hyperactive on Twitter, and she was outrage tweeting that day about police treatment of protesters, like the 75-year-old Buffalo man Martin Gugino.
A week later, the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Sleeping Giants, Color of Change and others organized a more official boycott telling brands to stop spending on the social network in July.
Coca-Cola was one of the first brands Detox Facebook named, tweeting a screenshot of a Coca-Cola ad on Facebook, which was labeled as having been paid for with Facebook ad credits. Coca-Cola's ad supported Black Lives Matter, and Facebook’s contribution was donating the media space, which sent a mixed message, according to Detox Facebook.
"Companies left and right are releasing statements in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, yet at the same time, pouring advertising money into a company that is directly undermining the cause that they claim to be supporting, which is why one of our calls to advertisers [is] to get them to redirect their money outside of Facebook," says Mike, a pseudonym given by one of the founders of Detox Facebook, who spoke with Ad Age on a video call on the condition he could remain anonymous.
The civil rights groups want Facebook to enact stricter policies to combat hate speech and disinformation. Since then, it has wrangled support from major brands like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Unilever, Verizon, Honda, Pfizer, The Clorox Co. and The Hershey Co.
Last week, Coca-Cola announced it would stop spending on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat. The soft-drink maker made its decision after the formal boycott formed in mid-June, when the civil rights groups started Stop Hate for Profit.
Coca-Cola declined to discuss its social media marketing strategy outside of its public statement announcing its intention to pause ads.
In the past week, Facebook changed its terms of service, allowing it wider berth to moderate offensive posts, especially political ads, and it promised to be more transparent to prove its effectiveness fighting hate speech.
What's at stake
Facebook finds itself embroiled in a bruising political fight, caught between President Donald Trump’s tirades and these confrontational activists. Facebook executives have countered with the new policies meant to instill confidence in its leadership. And the social media platform has had some success with one of its messages to brands: If you boycott the social network, you must also pause ads on Twitter and YouTube, like Coca-Cola did. The issues raised against Facebook directly apply to rivals, too, the argument goes.
Then there is the question of how much an ad freeze could even hurt Facebook. The company made $70 billion in ad revenue in 2019 and has more than 8 million advertisers. Stop Hate for Profit lists about 125 companies as having joined its cause.
Facebook generated about $5.8 billion every month in ad revenue worldwide, with $2.7 billion of that monthly total in the U.S. and Canada, according to its 2019 earnings reports. Coca-Cola spent $22 million on Facebook ads in the U.S. during 2019, according to Pathmatics, a digital advertising data company. Starbucks was its largest advertiser so far to join the ad freeze, and the java giant spent $94.9 million on Facebook ads in the U.S. in 2019.
As of Tuesday, the top 15 brands in the boycott, including Pfizer, Starbucks, Unilever and PepsiCo, accounted for $39.5 million of Facebook's advertising dollars in the U.S. on average each month in 2019, according to Pathmatics data. That means the top 15 brands represented 1.5 percent of Facebook's monthly revenue in the U.S. and Canada.
"A pause in ad spending for one month, I mean that's barely going to dent their bottom line," says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of ADL, one of the leaders of the movement. "But that's never what it was about. It's always been about making a point and pushing the company to work with us to make the changes that we need."
Origins of social media unrest
Ad Age reached out to Detox Facebook on Twitter, and two members of the group agreed to talk without disclosing their names, adopting pseudonyms Mike and James. They arranged a video call through Jitsi and kept their identities hidden. “Sorry for the cloak-and-dagger,” Mike says.
James says he is a freelance creative director who has worked with most of the big agencies, and Mike says he is an ex-Silicon Valley data scientist. Another member of Detox Facebook said over Twitter direct messaging the group has been in “informal” contact with Sleeping Giants, which is a party to Stop Hate for Profit and a social media-savvy group that mounts persistent online campaigns against Facebook.
"Facebook seems like it's been the biggest culprit in terms of destabilizing democracies," James says, addressing why Detox Facebook targeted the social network but not rivals like Twitter and YouTube.
Ad Age could not verify whether Detox Facebook has any special financial backing or other motivations. Mike and James say they have none. Facebook has been dogged by all types of critics who are driven by politics, money, activism, and sometimes all three.
"It is true that the other tech platforms are not entirely unimpeachable, but Facebook is a trillion-dollar company, and it has failed to be accountable in any way shape or form," Mike says. "It's gone after people it's deemed to be a threat. No power, no parliament, no law enforcement body or regulatory agency has been able to stand up to Facebook. And we are just, I'd say, a small group of people trying to do our part and stop this normalization of violence against peaceful protesters in the streets. I think it's set a very chilling precedent for what's to come."
The recent Facebook backlash has been building since the start of June, after President Donald Trump sent a message on the social network and Twitter saying, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." That was at the height of the racial justice protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Facebook reviewed its policies but did not find one that would punish Trump's violent tone. The Washington Post reported this week that Facebook’s public policy executives were on the phone with the Trump campaign urging him to reword his message. Meanwhile, Twitter did not remove the message, but it did put a warning label on it, saying if not for the public interest factor, it would have taken it down.
If Facebook had taken some action against that one post, as Twitter did, the ad boycott might have been avoided. Instead it became a unifying moment for Facebook's fiercest critics, crystalizing all their objections about the company.
"We know, in recent years, that there have been many accounts of disinformation being spread on Facebook and division being sown by Facebook," Greenblatt says, the ADL CEO who spoke with Ad Age by phone. "But specifically, in recent weeks, after the killing of George Floyd, we were alarmed as we watched extremists organize on the platform to try to disrupt the protests. We were horrified to see conspiracy theories being circulated on the platform."
The list of grievances against Facebook goes back years and are now being reviewed with renewed intensity. There have been continuing issues with extremism and disinformation, and there are new bogeymen to chase off the platform with "boogaloo" militias organizing there, QAnon conspiracies, climate denialism and coronavirus paranoia. (“Boogaloo” is a term used by openly violent agitators in the U.S., who adopted it as a reference to the musical 1980s movie sequel called “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Online groups use it, partly with irony, as a call for a sequel to the U.S. Civil War, and they are active on most social media sites. QAnon is also part of the widespread online conspiracy chatter.)
On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it went after "Boogaloo" accounts, removing more than 500 Pages and Groups linked to the ideology. "This violent network is banned from having a presence on our platform and we will remove content praising, supporting or representing it," Facebook wrote in a blog post about its action.
Everything is political
It is impossible to understand Facebook’s current state without the context of the current sensitive political climate. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all been under scrutiny since the U.S. elections in 2016, when they were abused by bad actors that sowed disinformation and chaos. None of the digital platforms have been spared the outrage of digital activists who have been stunned by the ease with which extremists spread their messages online.
On the social network, fringe political actors are known to assemble in Groups, run Facebook Pages, spread misinformation on WhatsApp, and stalk the opposition in comments sections.
With 3 billion people on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, activists view the social network as the biggest target. If they could influence its policies, and block people they view as dangerous political rivals, it would be a monumental victory. The 2020 election is reaching a boiling point, and in a high-stakes race, Facebook is a consequential battlefield.
The vitriol is alarming to brands, some of whom have now joined the July ad protest, and even extended it through the rest of the year. When it joined the movement this week, Clorox Co. noted the need for Facebook to “take action against hate speech, which we believe will increase through the balance of the year.”
Meanwhile, Trump lashes out when platforms enforce rules that touch his messages and the messages of his allies. Last month, Trump signed an executive order that would punish internet companies for censoring political messaging, for instance.
Trump’s Department of Justice is mounting an aggressive anti-trust investigation against Google. The entire U.S. regulatory community is inspecting Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple for potential anti-competitive practices that could lead to cases against the companies. Trump has pestered Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the U.S. Postal Service raise prices on delivering e-commerce packages to tens of millions of Americans. Bezos owns The Washington Post, which Trump has lumped in with the rest of mainstream media as “the enemy of the people.”
On the other side, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has blasted Facebook for allowing misleading election ads to go unchecked. Last year, the popular leftist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez torched Zuckerberg during congressional hearings over her concerns about fact-checking on Facebook, or lack thereof.
On June 30, a group of Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Mark Warner sent a letter to Facebook calling on the company to root out right-wing extremism, which is promoted by groups affiliated with QAnon and “Boogaloo” conspiracies. “[Its] failure to address the hate spreading on its platform reveals significant gaps between Facebook’s professed commitment to racial justice and the company’s actions and business interests,” the senators wrote.
Facebook leadership has been criticized for being too quick to appease Trump and his allies. There are reports of Zuckerberg dining with Trump and recently explaining Facebook policies to him before deciding not to censor his “shooting” post. And when Facebook does take steps to moderate speech, it favors a less heavy-handed approach. Meanwhile, Facebook’s head of global policy Joel Kaplan is viewed by critics as too partial toward conservative causes with friends on the right in Washington D.C.
Color of Change, one of the groups organizing the advertising boycott, is pressing Facebook to fire Kaplan.
Facebook declined to make its executives available for this story, although the company has shared updates in recent days about how it is handling many of the issues raised by the protest movement.
Facebook stands strong
Facebook is undoubtedly feeling besieged but has told advertisers it will not be moved to make policy decisions based on the boycott. "We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure," Carolyn Everson, Facebook VP of global business solutions, wrote in an e-mail to ad agencies and brands last week that was obtained by Ad Age. "We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests.”
The social network is working with the civil rights groups, and Zuckerberg has expressed personal outrage at the Trump message about shooting demonstrators. But Zuckerberg has taken a stance, which he laid out in a public speech at Georgetown University last year, that Facebook will allow the widest possible range of expression, short of speech that leads directly to violence. Facebook does not want to be the arbiter of what is acceptable political speech, and the company has challenged lawmakers to make those rules, not social media CEOs.
On Friday, Zuckerberg outlined policies that addressed Facebook's ability to censor Trump and offensive speech. Facebook adopted a tool that is like Twitter’s warning label, but not as forceful. Facebook will put a warning on, say, a presidential message that breaks its rules, but allow it to be shared and commented upon, in the interest of informing the public. Twitter restricts retweeting and commenting on messages with its warning label.
"Often, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest, and in the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says, we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms," Zuckerberg wrote.
"Facebook is supporting hate, not 'free speech,'" said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president, on June 26. "Facebook's inactions are costing us lives."
Widening the scope
Many of the same issues that infect Facebook apply to others, as well. YouTube has had issues with extremist, racist and terrorist content. Brands boycotted the Google-owned video service in 2017.
Twitter was praised for taking a tough line against Trump, stamping advisory notices on his tweets, and generally frustrating him. But Twitter was also credited with helping Trump find his early political footing. Color of Change has also called for Twitter to ban Trump, not just hide his tweets behind a warning.
This week, YouTube banned a handful of high-profile channels run by right-wing operatives, including David Duke and Richard Spencer. Reddit, too, is in the process of cleaning out its platform, and this week banned 2,000 communities. One of them was “The_Donald,” an influential online gathering space for some of the president’s most active supporters.
Facebook wants to mount a more cooperative coalition with the ad world that will not have to stop marketing online at a time when the economy is in a slump and businesses need the exposure to stay afloat.
Last week, in her e-mail to advertisers, Everson said she talked to brands that were leery about the boycott, because they worried the demands would not stop at Facebook. “Many of you have expressed concern that a boycott on Facebook is unlikely to stop there—boycotts tend to spread to other platforms/media and boycotting in general is not the way for us to make progress together," Everson wrote.
Indeed, the boycott has grown. Last week Coca-Cola said it would take part in the ad freeze, but it included Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat. Unilever included Twitter when it joined the boycott. Starbucks, Ford and Kellogg, said they would pause all social spending, including Twitter.
How big an impact can this have on Facebook?
As of Monday, Facebook's Wall Street analysts, who follow the company's financial performance, were mostly in agreement that the boycott would not have a lasting impact on a brand that has more than 8 million advertisers, including Instagram and Messenger. Even after PepsiCo became the latest major brand in the boycott for July, Facebook's stock price was still hovering near all-time highs at $225 a share.
"There's a long tail of advertisers on Facebook and Google and all of these platforms," says William Merchan, chief revenue officer at Pathmatics, the advertising data firm. "A lot of them are small businesses and ones that can't turn off ad spending on some of these platforms, because that means their business goes away."
Facebook does not reveal the amount of revenue it gets from Fortune 500 companies versus small businesses. It has addressed the subject in earnings calls, however. "Over the last several years, we've seen our business diversify more," Facebook Chief Financial Officer Dave Wehner said earlier this year when reporting earnings from 2019. "We've seen … the largest advertisers grow more slowly than the next tiers. So, our business has gotten a little bit more diversified over time."
Pathmatics added up the estimated spending on Facebook for the top 500 U.S. advertisers, which includes companies like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Disney, Home Depot, Walmart and AT&T. The top 500 companies spent $570 million on Facebook and Instagram advertising in the U.S. in May, according to Pathmatics.
The average daily spending on the social service from the top 500 advertisers was $18 million in the U.S. for June. That is less than 10 percent of Facebook's ad revenue in 2019, which averaged $192 million a day worldwide. Facebook averaged $91.5 million a day in the U.S. and Canada, according to its 2019 earnings report data. That means the top 500 advertisers make up about 20 percent of its daily revenue in the U.S.
Facebook will be in more trouble, however, if more advertisers than have announced publicly decide to take July off. The company is already feeling the effects of coronavirus on the broader economy, and even without a boycott, brands have been more careful about running ads as protests and other topics dominate social media feeds.
"There's this interesting swing in spending over the last few months," Merchen says. "It's the coronavirus. It's Black Lives Matter, and now it's the kind of the Facebook boycott. So, there's definitely tons of volatility in this market right now, in terms of how brands are investing in digital."
What boycotters want
In mid-June, Stop Hate for Profit made their demands presenting 10 steps Facebook could take to monitor hate speech and disinformation. Among the recommendations were the need to appoint a new executive with a civil rights background. They also want Facebook to verify its record on hate speech. Facebook claims to have an 89 percent success rate catching hateful content before it reaches the public.
That has been one of Facebook’s biggest defenses in recent days, and it has been circulating a report from the European Commission that credits the social network with leading the industry in content removal. On Monday, Facebook said it would allow an audit by the Media Rating Council to verify its performance on removing hate speech.
However, none of Facebook’s changes in the past week have fully appeased the organizers of the protest.
As of Tuesday, the day before the boycott was scheduled to start, the ADL and NAACP were still getting ready to push the button on the ad freeze, and more brands were still piling in. PepsiCo was among the newcomers to the cause on Tuesday.
There has also been some confusion about what it exactly means to boycott.
Do the boycotts require all brands within a parent company to halt spending on all Facebook properties, including Instagram? Does it require the brands to stop spending outside the U.S.?
Representative for Stop Hate for Profit told Ad Age the movement is meant to be global. Color of Change told Ad Age that it started as a call to shut spending in the U.S. but has since been advocating for a worldwide effort.
Brands have been interpreting their obligations differently. Unilever has said it will stop spending in the U.S., for instance. On June 19, The North Face was the first brand to join, and it initially shut down on Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. This week, it said it would include worldwide spending.
VF Corp., owns The North Face, and so far, not every brand within its family has joined the boycott.
A representative for Stop Hate for Profit says the organizers do not have a fixed rule as to what a brand must do in the protest. They are just welcoming any brand coming forward.
“Keep in mind, what we’re not calling for here is a permanent boycott of Facebook,” says the ADL's Greenblatt. “What we’re not calling for is a forever walkout on the company. What we’re calling for is simply a one-month pause on advertising.”