Can Boycotting Facebook’s Advertising Services Force Positive Change?

Will the social media giant finally listen?

By: Anna Lekas Miller & Eline Jeanne

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of companies joined a call to boycott Facebook’s advertising services for the month of July, hoping that the financial blow will force the $70 billion social media platform to address the spread of hate speech and misinformation that many feel is disproportionately impacting minority communities.

“We have been continually disappointed and stunned by Zuckerberg’s commitment to protecting white supremacy, voter suppression and outright lies on Facebook,” said Rashad Robinson, the President of Color of Change.

While many of these issues—from voter suppression to racist algorithms—have been in the public consciousness for years, the murder of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter protests have shed a new light on how the platform has allowed blatantly racist hate speech and incitement to violence against protestors to go unchecked.

“Facebook’s failure of leadership has actively stoked the racial hatred we see in our country and even profits off its proliferation,” he continued. “A key way for major corporations to demand racial justice is to withhold their dollars until Facebook becomes more responsible and accountable to Black communities on the platform.”

Among others, the campaign demands Facebook to find and remove private groups associated with white supremacy and stop recommending or otherwise amplifying groups associated with hate, misinformation or conspiracy theories to users. It would be a welcome change in policies to groups such as the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), who come across numerous examples of harmful content that impacts the Jewish community.

“It is very problematic that Facebook does not have a global policy on hate speech,” says EUJS Vice President Ruben Gerczikow, explaining that up until now Facebook focusses on local laws to implement certain measures, such as removing content that denies the Holocaust.

“Holocaust denial is legal in the United States, but it’s illegal in Germany,” Gerczikow continues, pointing out that this, combined with the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) has allowed Facebook Germany to do a good job at purging the platform of Holocaust deniers. Still, with no global policy, fighting antisemitism on the platform remains difficult.

“Social media platforms can define what is hate speech on their own channels,” Gerczikow explains. “If they want to, they can do something against antisemitic conspiracies.”

But can withdrawing advertising money force this change? It is a tactic that has worked in the past. The UK-based organization Stop Funding Hate has built an entire campaign strategy around advertising boycotts, encouraging companies that advertise in notoriously right-wing, and often anti-immigrant publications such as The Daily Mail and The Sun to pull their advertisements to show that hate has consequences for these media companies’ bottom line.

Still, a media outlet is not the same as a social media platform. While many people consume social media just as frequently—if not more—than traditional media sources, the structure is fundamentally different. A media publication presents articles, radio and video broadcasts and interacts with its audience selectively on social media platforms. Meanwhile Facebook has fan pages, personal pages, groups, events and more—often with very little moderation.

Article19 Senior Legal Officer Gabrielle Guillemin warns that sudden changes to these practices could lead to unintended consequences for freedom of expression.

“We agree and support the calls for accountability, and the need for civil rights audits, but have concerns over the calls for changes to the terms of service,” she says, pointing out that this could prevent political discussion in the public interest, potentially unintentionally silencing the very minority voices that they’re trying to protect.

“Often, these policies are phrased in terms that can be quite vague,” she continues, pointing out that this leaves terms like radicalization or terrorism up to interpretation, sometimes stifling harmless discussions and missing harmful ones.

“Facebook needs to do better, but it is not as clear cut as one might think—there are lots of gray areas, and this is where it gets tricky.”

It is a concern that comes up time, and time again with our Media Diversity Institute projects, and other organizations in our network that champion freedom of expression that encourages healthy debate, all the while respecting the enormous power of language and how it can be easily used as a tool for discrimination. A healthy, interesting and respectful online debate can easily get hijacked, and used a space to push harmful propaganda. How do you stop the latter without eliminating the former?

For Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) Founder Aidan White, it is much more straightforward.

“Facebook has allowed its technology platform to encourage opportunist politicians like Duterte of the Philippines and Bolsonaro of Brazil who do not have respect for freedom of expression and democratic values to undermine normal democratic principles and create a mob mentality that has carried them into power,” he says, referring to the way the platform’s lack of policy towards hate speech has inadvertently played a role in the rise of the far right around the world.

“Facebook fails to recognize that it’s a player in the democratic process by allowing a reckless use of technology that threatens the democratic fabric of our society. It has to be reined in.”

Media Diversity Institute supports the #StopHateForProfit campaign.