Facebook has been criticized for policy decisions that civil rights groups claim allow conspiracy theorists to proliferate and harassment to go unpunished. Facebook has been hammered over a failure to punish the account of President Donald Trump, after he posted a message in May that suggested shooting protesters. Trump posted the message to Facebook and Twitter, and Twitter slapped the tweet with a warning label while Facebook dealt no punishment.
It was a divisive message from the president, but Facebook has been in a difficult position catering to forces in Washington and the demands of activists, who want it to take a harder line. On Thursday, a report in The Wall Street Journal said Trump’s campaign was bewildered by social media companies that have penalized him. And Facebook has taken steps to moderate how Trump uses the platform. Last week, it removed one of his ads for featuring “Nazi-era” imagery.
In recent days, Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have spoken with advertisers to lay out the case that the company is taking hate speech and disinformation seriously. Carolyn Everson, Facebook's VP, global marketing solutions, has sent emails to advertisers to assure them of the platform's progress.
In her email to advertisers sent this week, which Ad Age obtained, Everson addressed the boycott, and said Facebook is making strides, especially when it comes to handling disinformation and election ads.
"In the interest of making sure I stay in as close contact with you as possible given the recent call for a boycott and more importantly given some of your feedback on what Facebook is doing to address Hate Speech overall, I wanted to provide an important update and a path forward." Everson said in her email. "I deeply appreciate all the calls, meetings and messages that so many of you have participated in and led that demonstrate the spirit of wanting to partner together to not only improve Facebook’s role in society but also more broadly the entire online ecosystem."
Facebook recently updated its election ads policies that give people the ability to block all political ads, and also launched an election hub, which displays fully vetted information.
With its letter, the ADL said it was rebutting the arguments put forth by Facebook executives. One of the areas the letter addressed was the "civil rights auditors."
Facebook has said that it catches 89 percent of hate speech before it spreads on the social network. The civil rights groups said that Facebook needs to be more transparent about how it identifies and eliminates hate speech.
Facebook generated $70 billion in advertising revenue in 2019 and has more than 8 million advertisers. It is not clear how much a one-month boycott would affect its bottom line. Still, the ADL is trying to prod Facebook to adopt stricter policies to prevent harassment by hate groups and limit disinformation.
The ADL said it found at least two brands, Geico and Verizon, running ads next to offensive posts by conspiracy groups.
"Our analysts were easily able to find examples like an ad from the auto insurance company Geico appearing alongside an antisemitic and racist conspiracy post accusing George Soros of funding Black civil rights efforts in order to fuel martial law," the letter says. "Similarly, we found an advertisement for Verizon appearing next to a video from the conspiracy group QAnon drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric."
An ADL spokesman said the group found the Geico and Verizon ads while browsing Facebook on desktop, and they appeared to the right of the Newsfeed.
Geico was not immediately available for comment.
All digital platforms have come under scrutiny for allowing fringe groups to spread messages. Twitter and YouTube have faced similar criticisms. In 2017, brands supported a boycott of YouTube because ads were appearing in videos related to extremist and terrorist content.
Brands are concerned about running messages when they are adjacent to potentially harmful content, but it has not typically been a major issue on Facebook. The social network has 2.6 billion users across all its services, and they see feeds of content personalized to their tastes. Most ads run in their own sponsored posts, aside from pre-roll video ads.
Still, the ADL said there was too much hateful disinformation on Facebook, which is also a sensitive subject as the U.S. elections heat up. The 2016 race was marred by the spread of foreign propaganda on social media, and Facebook has been blamed for being a channel that could lead people to conspiracy theories.
"Given where Facebook is now, improvement is not that hard," The ADL said in its letter. "Clamp down on common misinformation and conspiracies. Stop recommending hate. Make a number of clear, common-sense changes to ameliorate and mitigate hate."
Contribution from George P. Slefo