Unilever spent just over $504,000 in advertising on Facebook in the US in the first three weeks of June © AP

Unilever says it will pull digital advertising spending from Facebook and Twitter in the US until at least the end of this year, citing concerns about the proliferation of divisive content and hate speech on the platforms in the lead-up to the presidential election.

Coca-Cola also announced on Friday it was pausing all social media advertising globally for a month, with chief executive James Quincey saying in a statement that there was “no place for racism on social media” and that the company would use the time to review its advertising policies.

The decisions mark the latest blow to Facebook from big advertising clients, coming just a day after US telecoms group Verizon joined a growing boycott of the social media group. Other companies, including The North Face and the ad agency Goodby Silverstein said they were pausing advertising for July. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a Unilever brand, had also earlier joined the boycott.

Facebook shares, which fell sharply in morning trading on Friday on the Verizon news, closed down 8.3 per cent. Twitter was 7.4 per cent lower.

In a statement, Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice-president of global media, said social media platforms needed to do more “in the areas of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarised election period in the US”, adding it would pull brand advertising from Facebook and its photo app Instagram, and from the group’s smaller rival Twitter.

“Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society. We will be monitoring ongoing and will revisit our current position if necessary,” he said.

Within hours of Unilever’s announcement, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, took to the platform to announce changes that prohibit hate speech in ads, as well as plans to add labels to posts that violate its policies but remain published because the platform deems it “in the public interest” to do so, including certain speech from politicians, for example. 

Unilever and Verizon are the biggest organisations to have pulled ads in response to Facebook’s handling of hate speech and decision to allow several contentious posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on the platform.

Verizon spent an estimated $850,000 in advertising on Facebook in the US in the first three weeks of June, according to the ad intelligence group Pathmatics, while Unilever spent just over $504,000 in the same period. Facebook is expected to generate $81bn in annual ad revenues, according to data from eMarketer, suggesting it makes about $4.7bn over a three-week period, on average.

Facebook has come under fire, in particular, for not taking down a post by Mr Trump that used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in reference to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd a month ago. Twitter censured that post for violating its prohibition on glorifying violence.

Last week the Anti-Defamation League and several other activist groups launched a boycott of Facebook under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, urging advertisers to curb their spending on the platform throughout July.

Meanwhile, Verizon made a similar move on Thursday after the ADL published an open letter to companies that advertise on Facebook. In the letter, the ADL said it had found a Verizon advert on Facebook that appeared next to a misleading video from the conspiracy group QAnon “drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric”.

John Nitti, Verizon’s chief media officer, said in a statement that his company’s “brand safety standards have not changed”, adding: “We have strict content policies in place and have zero tolerance when they are breached . . . We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners.”

Coca-Cola said that its decision to pause spending was not part of the official boycott but would give it “time to reassess our advertising policies to determine whether revisions are needed”.

Facebook has been rushing to staunch the loss of clients. This week it defended its policies on a private conference call with almost 200 advertisers, according to leaked audio obtained by the Financial Times, with top policy executives admitting that the company had a “trust deficit” but saying they were “here to listen” to marketers.

Several other big advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble, have raised concerns about hate speech on Facebook but have stopped short of pulling ads from the platform. 

In a last-minute live update on Friday, Mr Zuckerberg announced policy changes, such as prohibiting any claim that people of a particular protected characteristic, such as gender, race or immigration status, “are a threat to the physical safety or health or survival of any of anyone else”. Facebook would also change policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from hateful ads, he said.

Additional reporting by Judith Evans in London

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