Facebook Ceo Mark Zuckerberg at a meeting with the EU in February 2020

Advertising boycotts typically create more chatter than change, but a new one against Facebook over its refusal to keep in check what many groups see as incendiary hate speech on its platform may be the push the company needs to take some responsibility.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, chief executive officer and chairman, and Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operations officer, are said by sources to be pushing for a meeting with powerful civil rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others behind the “Stop Hate for Profit” boycott. Color of Change, the anti-Defamation League and other groups are also behind the boycott. 

Ad leaders at Facebook are said to have been calling and e-mailing big advertisers and agencies the last few days, assuring them that Zuckerberg and Sandberg will be meeting with the NAACP and others. The meeting could come soon, as the Facebook leaders are apparently looking for concrete actions the company could ostensibly take in response to the boycott started last Friday, the Juneteenth holiday. But if a meeting takes place and Facebook decides to maintain its position of “neutrality” when it comes to speech, the boycott could linger.

“Facebook has long been a bad actor and Color of Change has been interacting with Facebook directly for over five years,” Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, CoC’s deputy senior campaign director, said. “We’ve come to a point now where we’re just asking corporations to put their money where their mouth is. Black Lives Matter is not a trend for corporations to exploit.”

She said that what happens by the end of July — when many of the boycotts are due to end — will dictate what actions the group takes next, but said, “We are in a watershed moment in the country, for the first time in a long time we’re experiencing a cultural narrative shift.”

As for whether the boycott is actually about impacting Facebook financially, or more of an effort to bring public awareness about the platform allowing hate speech and white supremacist groups, as well as “voter misinformation targeted toward Black people,” as Ogunnaike put it, she said “we want both.”

“Yes, we want to call attention to it, to the actions of a platform that has more adherents than Christianity, but we also want corporations to pull their funds.”

And a meeting with the groups behind the boycott does not mean Facebook will change a thing. Zuckerberg has met with civil rights groups before, including the NAACP and CoC, over issues with Facebook’s policy, or lack thereof, on hate speech, particularly when it comes to President Trump’s at times extremely incendiary and racially charged rhetoric.

A phone meeting last month, stemming from Trump’s post that said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in regard to growing protests over the police killing of George Floyd, did not go well. After civil rights groups spoke with Zuckerberg, they released a statement saying they were “disappointed and stunned by Mark’s incomprehensible explanations for allowing the Trump posts to remain up.” Facebook made no changes to its policy on hate speech.  

But with continued protesting and activist agitation over decades of police brutality against Black people and institutionalized racism in all sorts of industries, including media, Zuckerberg and Sandberg may not be able to maintain their defense of inaction. Especially as platforms like Twitter and Snapchat have been public in their recent efforts to better label misinformation and incendiary speech on its platforms, even from President Trump.

A Facebook spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on the executives’ attempt to get a meeting with the groups behind the boycott. Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global business, said separately through a spokeswoman: “We respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organizations are about how, together, we can be a force for good.”      

More than 10 advertisers have signed on to the week-old boycott so far, “pending meaningful action” by Facebook. The biggest advertiser yet to back the boycott is Verizon, which has spent about $2 million in Facebook and Instagram ads over the last two months, according to data from Sling & Stone, a public relations firm and agency that tracks ad spend by platform.

Even with a big corporate name like Verizon deciding to boycott the month of July, the amount of advertising dollars Facebook is poised to lose next month is barely a rounding error to its annual revenue, which last year tallied $70.7 billion, almost entirely from ad sales. 

Most of the brands that have so far agreed to boycott are smaller advertisers. Eileen Fisher, The North Face, REI, Patagonia and Arc’teryx have all joined. Combined, they’ve spent just $1.1 million over the last two months across Facebook and Instagram, according to Sling & Stone. Even if all those brands boycotted the platforms for the next year, that would account for just over 0.01 percent of Facebook’s revenue.

“It’s just such a juggernaut that a few high-profile boycotts won’t hurt them much,” Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Group, said. “But they are under a ton of fire lately. Survey after survey shows the public credibility of Facebook is relatively low.

“The bigger peril for them is an antitrust action or some kind of government regulation, but that cycles back to this boycott in that, is there a changing climate among public opinion about what they do?” Edmonds added.  

Zuckerberg and Sandberg pushing for a meeting with the NAACP shows they may be a bit rattled by the boycott.

And they likely should be. Ogunnaike said CoC and others behind the boycott are in talks with “many more” companies about pulling their spend for a month. 

Vic Drabicky, founder and ceo of advertising and consulting firm January Digital, said he’s just started analyzing at the request of a client the possibility of pulling out of advertising with Facebook and Instagram for the rest of the year.

“We are starting to have those types of conversations with clients,” Drabicky said.

But conversations are just that. Given the size of Facebook in the digital ad space, a lot of brands feel there’s little choice but to stick with them, Drabicky added. Facebook and Instagram make up about 25 percent of all digital marketing and Facebook’s platforms are known for driving sales for consumer brands, many of which are now reeling from the economic shutdown over the coronavirus pandemic.

“If this was any other year, this boycott would probably gain far more steam than it has so far,” Drabicky said. “It’s a tough spot for a lot of brands to be in.”

As for whether Facebook is likely to make any changes in order to quell the boycott and maybe even save face a little, Drabicky thinks the moment we’re in may be enough to push executives over the edge.

“They don’t have a great track record with changing,” Drabicky said, “but the things we’re dealing with now as a society are so monumental, everyone at Facebook has to be looking at it now.”

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