Facebook accused of failing to deliver on advertisers’ boycott demands

Facebook has “failed to deliver” on most of its advertisers’ demands on content moderation despite July’s boycott, one of its organisers has said, as civil rights groups weigh their next move and some big brands refuse to resume spending on the platform. 

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said the action against the world’s largest social media platform by US marketers “wasn’t a really full campaign. It was a warning shot.”

The groups were “right now looking at new potential actions, with new . . . stakeholders”, he added. 

“Things are in the works,” he said, because Facebook had “failed to deliver on the vast majority” of their demands. A sister “Stophateforprofit” campaign, for example, was launched in Europe over the weekend. 

More than 1,100 companies committed to pulling their digital advertising dollars from Facebook for the month of July in protest at its perceived failure to tackle racism and hate speech on its platform after the killing of George Floyd.

The top 100 advertisers on Facebook spent at least $308m in July, compared with nearly $390m for the same month last year, according to data from Pathmatics, as several big spenders cut back.

Many marketers are returning for August — around 95 per cent of the total, according to an estimate by a top advertising agency executive. These include many smaller players that are more reliant on the platform, as well as groups such as Heineken, The North Face and Puma. 

It comes after Facebook made some concessions, including agreeing to create a team to study if its algorithms lead to racial bias and a new role of vice-president for civil rights.

The social media group also agreed to join an effort to create an industry-wide definition of hate speech and undergo two audits related to the toxic content on its platform. 

“We saw high double-digit per cent declines early in the month with some spend returning to the platform as the month of July progressed,” one large media buying agency said. “Ultimately, though, it’s hard to isolate for the boycott versus market effects of Covid.”

Nevertheless, some big brands — including drinks group Diageo, Honda’s US arm and software group SAP — have opted to stay off Facebook. In most cases, they cited insufficient action in response to other campaign demands, which include ending the amplification of hate groups and refunds to advertisers whose ads are placed next to hateful content.

“SAP is in full agreement with [the] Stop Hate for Profit coalition that the stated actions fall short of policy changes required to achieve a true categorical rejection of online hate and racism,” the company said. 

General Motors, Verizon and Coca-Cola are also continuing to shun the platform after taking action in July, although they said they were not aligned with the official boycott.

“We’re in close contact with the Facebook team as they work towards a [solution] that makes us comfortable putting our content back on the platform (we’re not there yet),” Verizon said. 

The split comes as Facebook predicted in its earnings last week that the boycott would hit its next quarterly results. However, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg indicated on a Wall St call that the impact would be negligible, saying that people still “wrongly assume that our business is dependent on a few large advertisers” when in fact it has 9m advertisers globally. 

Sheryl Sandberg © Bloomberg

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said on the call that the company had “a lot more to do” to tackle hate speech, adding: “We are working every day to meet this challenge, not because of pressure from advertisers, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Mr Greenblatt said the civil rights groups “never expected to put a dent in Facebook’s P&L . . . We said we wanted to shine a spotlight on their practices.” 

He said that the campaign’s “success is undeniable” in this respect, as it was raised repeatedly in last week’s bruising congressional hearings with the big tech chiefs.

But he added: “Another ad pause is absolutely possible if Facebook doesn’t make [more] progress in a meaningful timeframe.” 

Additional reporting by Patricia Nilsson in London and Claire Bushey in Chicago