Facebook fails to stem advertising boycott over hate speech

Facebook’s efforts to stem a growing client boycott by introducing new policies failed over the weekend, with big brands including Diageo, Starbucks and Levi’s pulling spending.

Facebook will head into July with dozens of brands including Unilever, Verizon and Coca-Cola cancelling advertising for between a month and six months — despite last-ditch attempts by the social media network to stop the boycott gathering steam. 

Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Friday announced plans on a live stream to prohibit hate speech in ads and better protect groups such as immigrants from attack. He also said the group would label posts that violate its policies but remain published because the platform deems it “in the public interest”, citing certain speech by politicians as an example.

The last-minute changes came just hours after Unilever, among Facebook’s larger blue-chip clients, said it would pause spending on the platform — as well as on Twitter — in the US, citing concerns about the proliferation of divisive content in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Facebook shares fell more than 10 per cent over the course of the week, to $212.50 in after-hours trading on Sunday, while Twitter is down by around 14 per cent over the same period.

Despite Mr Zuckerberg’s concessions, however, others have joined the list with pledges to pull back spending across social media more widely, which could also deal a blow to smaller groups such as Snap, Twitter and newer entrant TikTok.

In a statement on Sunday, Starbucks said it would “pause advertising on all social media platforms while we continue discussions internally, with our media partners and with civil rights organisations in the effort to stop the spread of hate speech”.

British beverage group Diageo also said it would stop paid advertising globally on “major social media platforms” from July 1 as it “continues to discuss with media partners how they will deal with unacceptable content”.

Coca-Cola’s chief executive James Quincey said there was “no place for racism on social media” and the company would curb advertising spending on all platforms for a month to review its advertising policies.

Chocolate company The Hershey Group and clothing group Levi’s took similar decisions after Mr Zuckerberg’s announcement, with the latter saying Facebook’s proposed steps were “simply not enough”.

Earlier this month, a consortium of civil rights groups launched a boycott of Facebook under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, urging advertisers to curb their spending on the platform throughout July.

It came amid mounting scrutiny of the company for what critics argue is haphazard policing of its site for hateful content. Anger escalated in particular after Facebook made the decision to leave several contentious posts from US president Donald Trump on its platform, including one 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. By contrast, Twitter added a warning to an identical post on its platform for “glorifying violence”.

More than 150 brands and agencies have now joined the boycott, many of which are smaller. However, the inclusion of groups such as Verizon and Unilever pose more of a threat to Facebook: they spent $850,000 and $504,000 in advertising on Facebook in the US in the first three weeks of June, respectively.

Additional reporting by Judith Evans in London