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.