Ford, Adidas, Starbucks, Unilever — the roll call of companies joining the advertising boycott against Facebook includes some of the world’s biggest household brands. So far, more than 150 have pledged to pull their ads from the social media network for periods of up to six months over its failure to take meaningful action against misinformation and hate speech.
The Silicon Valley giant is no stranger to controversy but this boycott threatens not only to dent its reputation but also its income. Its share price has fallen 9 per cent since the boycott began. Other social media platforms, including Twitter and Snapchat, are also being targeted. The brands that have gone on strike may in part have self-seeking motives — the boycott has generated positive press for many while allowing them to cut budgets that were already under pressure from the pandemic — but this should not detract from the worth of the action itself.
Social media platforms, notably Facebook which boasts 2.6bn users, provide a free and popular service for their users. Yet these social networks that were originally designed to build online communities have also allowed extremists and propagandists to flourish. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global policy and communications, said last week the network had “no incentive to tolerate hate speech”. Artificial intelligence allows Facebook to find close to 90 per cent of the offending items before users report them. That may be, but the problem remains that divisive posts are more likely to go viral — and the more clicks a piece generates, the more likely that Facebook makes money. Facebook, however unwittingly, amplifies this kind of hateful content by giving it a global reach.
Advertisers have until recently embraced Facebook, attracted by the targeted ads the social network gives them and how cheap the ads are. Digital advertising on platforms is predicted to account for more than half the $530bn global advertising industry this year. But the level of complaints about Facebook’s apparently less rigorous attitude to content than that of some of its rivals has been steadily growing. The resentment has become a call to action in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement; brands cannot be associated with any hint of racism or intolerance. Facebook’s approach is out of kilter with the public and corporate mood, as well as with that of its own employees.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, has form when it comes to riding out controversies. Critics say the company’s efforts to clean up its act have, until now, been largely cosmetic, paying lip service to reform while trying to protect its advertising-driven business model. Its recent “white paper” on regulating content lacked substance. Mr Zuckerberg, last Friday, promised to make further changes, including saying Facebook would add labels to certain posts.
This is unlikely to be enough. More fundamental change will be needed, including allowing marketers to better control where their advertising is placed. The boycott adds fuel to calls to make the algorithms that control the content open to scrutiny. Information asymmetry has long been the advantage of the digital platforms; they know how the algorithms work and what they are designed to profit from. Brussels has rightly suggested opening algorithms to audit. Greater transparency would cut the platforms’ profits as well as their advantage but it may be the only way for them to retain advertising volumes. And, as Mr Zuckerberg is finding to his cost, companies feel under no obligation to spend their ad dollars with Facebook.
Get alerts on Social Media when a new story is published