More than 600 companies say they won’t advertise on Facebook and its sister firm, Instagram, in July, as part of a campaign called Stop Hate for Profit.
Force Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to address his firm’s negative effects on society, says Jim Steyer, chief executive and founder of Common Sense Media, a children’s media education non-profit, and one of the boycott’s backers.
“They are amplifying hate speech, racist messages, white supremacy messages, all sorts of misinformation and dishonest political advertising,” said Steyer. “So, we asked the major advertisers of America to pause their advertising on the platform for at least a month.”
Just weeks ago, Steyer joined with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color of Change to call for the boycott. Hundreds responded, including retailers such as North Face and consumer goods giant Unilever.
A list of demands
The boycott’s demands include strengthening Facebook’s controls of hate speech and cracking down on misinformation campaigns, particularly when it comes to voting.
The campaign comes as people around the world are demanding that institutions change, including companies from each other, said Kellie McElhaney, founder of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
“The power differentials are really being challenged right now,” she said. “There are some organizations, some companies, some voices that have gotten too much power and have misused and abuse their power.”
She noted companies such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, which have been boycotted in the past, are pausing their advertising on Facebook in the U.S.
Yael Eisenstat is now visiting fellow with the Cornell Tech Digital Life Initiative. She used to head Facebook’s elections integrity team for political advertising.
“It is within their interests to make small changes,” she said. “They don't want to be blamed for somebody using their platform to manipulate people in an election. But tinkering around the margins of little changes to ensure that doesn't happen is very different from actually taking a step back and saying, ‘Is it possible that the core business we built is actually not the best thing for society?’”
Industry analysts say that Facebook — which made $70 billion in sales last year, mostly in advertising — will likely not feel a pinch to its bottom line as a result of the boycott. That is because just three of its top 25 advertisers are participating in the campaign and the company relies on millions of smaller advertisers for its revenue.
Still, the effort is getting attention and raising questions — again — about what can be done to manage Facebook.
There’s no shortage of ideas of how to fix Facebook. Some call for regulations. Others say break up the company and make Zuckerberg, who has controlling shares in the firm, answerable to a board.
Another idea: Hire ethicists to help with decision-making and give them power in the organization, says Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“I don't think there's any one core set of values,” he said. “I wish there was. And I wish it was some sense of trying to help the common good or trying to protect human rights or something that really helped them be a guiding principle for the company.”
Facebook says it doesn’t tolerate hate speech and points to its automated system to remove inflammatory ads before users see them.
Label content that breaks rules
Recently, the firm agreed to an external audit of how it is doing to make sure advertisers do not appear next to harmful messages, one of the boycott organizer’s demands.
Facebook also said it would label content that breaks its rules, even those posted by an elected official. And it will remove posts that Facebook thinks may lead to violence or deprive people’s right to vote.
These are important steps. But some critics argue it’s not enough.
“Yes, they can change,” said Eisenstat. “It's a question of whether they want to. Can they change as long as they continue to pursue being the biggest most dominant company in the world that absolutely has the monopoly over all conversations how we get our content, how we connect with people? Possibly not.”
The boycott organizers say their campaign is going global. But it will take time before they know if their efforts have a lasting effect.