Facebook wrestles with advertisers’ demands as boycott escalates

Facebook held last-ditch calls with its biggest advertisers as more than 400 brands prepared to pull their spending from its platforms on Wednesday in protest at its failure to tackle hate speech. But the effort was in vain

“It was all anodyne and stripped back. They’ve got to spit their party lines. But that’s not enough,” said one participant, who added that Facebook should commit to reimbursing advertisers if their content appears alongside hateful content.

“It’s about time they take Sheryl [Sandberg’s] advice and lean into this fully and fix it.”

When top brands including Unilever, Ford and Coca-Cola pulled their advertising dollars from Facebook this month as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, investors were spooked: last week $75bn was wiped off the company’s market value — more than the entire market capitalisation of rivals Twitter and Snap combined.

But the movement has also tapped into a wider spat between the company and its advertising clients, forcing Facebook to wrestle with longstanding demands over ad placement and transparency.

Advertisers boycott Facebook

In particular, marketers argue that the platform does not give sufficient oversight into the position of ads and the content they run next to, and that metrics in this respect are too closely guarded by Facebook to be reliable.

“Brands have been asking Facebook for a lot more transparency, for third-party verification [of metrics and data],” said David Jones, former chief executive of advertising group Havas and founder of brandtech company You & Mr Jones.

“These issues have been bubbling for a long time — and now you add in the spotlight of racial injustice. What brands are trying to say is you need to take this very seriously.” 

Last week Verizon, one of the first blue-chip brands to join the boycott, was prompted to do so after reports its advertising on Facebook had appeared next to a misleading video from the conspiracy group QAnon “drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric”.

Meanwhile, groups such as Microsoft and Mars have explicitly asked for more controls to prevent the placement of ads next to inappropriate content. 

“Advertisers need tools which are scalable across the industry, and which allow individual advertisers to make choices with respect to ad placements that reflect their values,” said Stephan Loerke, chief executive of the World Federation of Advertisers.

Direct access

Analysts have been quick to note that the impact of the boycott on Facebook’s annual revenues — which topped $70bn last year — is likely to be negligible, since three-quarters of its advertising earnings come not from the deep-pocketed brands leading the campaign but from small and medium-sized companies.

However the protest has already forced the company to make certain “brand safety” changes. On Monday, Facebook said it had agreed to undergo an audit by the Media Ratings Council, a media accreditation firm, to assess how well it protects brands from being placed next to harmful content, and how accurately it reports this data. It also said it would subject itself to an independent audit of how much hate and misinformation is on the platform.

Armed protesters in Lansing, Michigan, in April at a rally demanding the reopening of the state. Facebook has banned some accounts related to the ‘boogaloo’ movement © AFP/Getty Images

For many marketers, however, the ultimate goal is to be able to trace every single ad and what it has been placed against. As part of this, advertisers want to access data first-hand via direct integration with Facebook’s news feed, or through a third party with first-hand access, rather than receiving the platform’s own reporting, as is currently the case.

Facebook said that building such a system presents technical challenges but that it is looking for better ways to classify content in order to pass insights on placement on to advertisers. Sharing precise information on content directly could violate privacy rules, it said. 

But privately, some have accused Facebook of using privacy regulations as an excuse for inaction. “Facebook basically shows you an output and asks you to grade how they graded their homework. They are hiding behind GDPR and privacy when that is not the correct view,” said one senior advertising executive for a Fortune 100 company. 

Meanwhile many remain sceptical that Facebook would ever undertake such an overhaul, in spite of the pressure. Mr Jones said it would be difficult to get Facebook to tackle these particular bugbears “for the obvious reasons — that the more you control exactly what data flows out of your platform, the more you are in control. The more you open that up, the weaker your position.”

New policies

Facebook has also scrambled to make a broader range of content moderation concessions in recent days, including tightening its rules around hate speech in advertising and pledging to add labels to certain content from politicians that violate its policies.

“We have absolutely no incentive to tolerate hate speech,” Nick Clegg, the head of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister in the UK, told CNN this week. “We benefit from positive human connection — not hate.” 

But critics argue these tweaks have been rushed out and are only the first step in cleaning up the platform. On Tuesday, Facebook said that it had banned a network of accounts related to the anti-government “boogaloo” movement which sought to commit violence.

Line chart of share price ($) showing despite fallout Facebook's stock still remains near all-time highs

According to Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, a research initiative of the Campaign for Accountability, however, some violent boogaloo groups remained on the platform after the ban. “The new boogaloo policy is no remedy for Facebook’s repeated failure to enforce existing policies on its site,” she said.

Overall, there is doubt that Facebook will make meaningful changes that might harm its attention-based business model. 

“There must be some tremendous number crunching going on that will look at how you extract out a divisive DNA without causing people to significantly lower their time on the site,” said Eric Schiffer, chief executive of consulting group Reputation Management Consultants. “They’re going to . . . go after the most obvious low hanging fruit and still win the war on the margins.”

Additional reporting by Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan and Alex Barker in London