The Face­book Flare-Up And Why We Need To Keep Going
Jeff & Lindsay Sage / 10 July 2020

A small protest that began on June 17th by a collection of American civil-rights groups is gaining steam. 

By early July the #StopHateForProfit campaign, which accuses Facebook of publishing material that incites violence, helped persuade more than 600 firms, including major brands like Pfizer, Starbucks and Unilever, to pull ads from the platform.

As the list continues to grow, so does the pressure for Facebook to do better. 

Or does it?

Unfortunately, the financial damage to Facebook is limited

Consider the evidence:

  1. There’s little economic impact: Checked their stock price lately? It’s at an all time high.📈
  2. Most brands can’t hack a FB detox: The $70B ad business is built on 8 million much smaller for-profit and not-for-profit advertisers, most of them reliant on FB as their storefront or primary stakeholder connection. 
  3. Big brand boycotts matter less: The 100 largest advertisers account for less than 20% of Facebook’s revenue. And so far, only a handful of their top 50 ad buyers have joined the boycott. 
  4. Big brand motives are murky at best: It’s a convenient time for big brands to save a few ad $$$’s during a global pandemic and score some quick PR points. Conventional wisdom suggests they’ll be back. (As do their own communications.)
  5. Boycotts are a great start but have been unsuccessful on their own in the past: YouTube has kept growing its ad revenue steadily despite a major ad boycott in 2017, dubbed the “Adpocalypse”.

And as of July 2nd, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t seem too worried:

The Boycott is a reputational and a partner issue, rather than an economic one. My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on our platform soon enough.

It’s not all bad

Some of the things that Facebook is doing as a result of the public pressure are unambiguously positive. They added new guidelines to help limit hate speech and voter suppression guidelines. They’ve also promised other changes like labelling posts that break its rules, but are newsworthy enough to stay up. 

Facebook also claims that it catches 90% of the bad stuff everyday using a combination of AI and human intervention. It’s a massive undertaking and another positive step in the right direction. But at 2 billion posts per day, even if the percentage filtered out is accurate, the publishing of millions of pieces of hate speech and disinformation per day remains wildly unacceptable.

Bottom line

The Facebook monopoly is a clear market failure and is doing undeniable social harm. There’s no question they need to be held accountable. 

And this is in part why we have a government. To mitigate public harm. But we’re a day late and dollar short on public policy change and enforcement. Clearly Facebook has to do better, but solely outsourcing decisions on speech to a global platform or to the whims of advertisers would be an epic failure of governance. 

There’s no denying that something has to change. But who makes or enforces the changes will make a big difference in how they impact the world we live in. 

For now, we’ll pull our ads for the month of July, advise clients to do the same, and hope it adds a modicum of pressure to the change mandate. We’ll look to invest in local outlets and reach out to the ones that struggle due in large part to that monopoly we’re all talking about. 

But at the end of the day, Facebook only has two masters, advertisers and regulators. And it’s time for the regulators to step up. 

Otherwise, it might be time for FB users and the electorate to make some new friends.
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