Facebook is still trying to do some damage control around what’s turned into a sizable boycott of the platform by advertisers, but none are expecting any major changes after hearing from executives directly this week.
Facebook on Tuesday held what was dubbed a virtual “roundtable” discussion with advertisers and agencies, a meeting first reported by WWD. It was capped at 3,000 attendees, but for anyone listening to the call expecting a big announcement, they were in for some disappointment.
The call, led by Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions, joined by Neil Potts, Facebook’s director of public policy, and Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, was described by an industry source as giving no “major update” and made clear that “there is no major update coming” with regard to Facebook and Instagram actions on hate speech.
Hate speech, particularly that directed at Black people, is the focus of a month-long ad boycott led by civil rights groups the NAACP and Color of Change dubbed “Stop the Hate” that has grown in just two weeks to include more than 200 companies. Although the boycott has gained steam, these companies still only account for a few million of the tens of billions of dollars Facebook makes in ad revenue each year and Facebook has been very tempered in its response.
“I think some clients hoped Facebook would take a little more ownership of the issue, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that they didn’t have anything particularly new to say,” said Vic Drabicky, founder and chief executive officer of January Digital. “But if you believe their numbers, you can tell Facebook has done some work on this.”
Drabicky also noted that there is a sense that the issue of policing all hate speech on Facebook and Instagram is “unbelievably complicated and nuanced,” and the current situation puts both Facebook and advertisers “in a tough spot.” Facebook because it’s being “painted into the corner as being the bad guy,” and companies because they’re being faced during a time of economic upheaval due to the coronavirus with “choosing between much needed revenue and standing up for values.”
“It’s a weird dance everyone is doing right now,” Drabicky added. Nevertheless, he said between 20 percent and 30 percent of his clients are participating in the boycott, with more planning to participate in a shopping boycott related to Black Lives Matter set for July 7.
Facebook during the Tuesday call is said to have focused mainly on what it’s already done over the last two to three years to combat hate speech. But executives also took the opportunity to explain, from their perspective, the problems the platform faces in policing all of what is variously considered to be hate speech. They said there is no foolproof “fix” for it given the breadth of the issue. Even with a process of manually assessing the post by President Trump that set off the boycott, in which he said with regard to growing protests of the police killing of George Floyd, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the company failed to define it as hate speech.
Executives told advertisers that the company now has 35,000 people assessing what is flagged by Facebook’s AI as hate speech on the platform, and that it (according to internal data) catches around 90 percent of all such speech before it’s reported by a user. That’s up from roughly 20 percent (also according to internal data) just two years ago, a time when Facebook still allowed white supremacist groups on the platform. Given Facebook’s size and 1.7 billion daily active users, 35,000 people to review potential hate speech does seem paltry. Facebook is still working with Laura Murphy, formerly of the ACLU, who led a “civil rights audit” done last year, executives said.
They also explained to advertisers issues with policing some posts that contain incendiary words, which in some instances are being used in an ownership capacity by groups that traditionally would have certain words hurled at them in a discriminatory way. The example of “Dykes on Bikes,” a well established lesbian motorcycle club, was given during the call to illustrate this point.
As for the now infamous “looting” post by President Trump, executives said during the meeting that the post was early on taken up for manual review by Facebook, as it was flagged as hate speech. But even through that process, those reviewing the post decided it was acceptable public speech.
According to an industry source, those assessing the post are said to have determined that the context of the tweet was Trump meant looting would lead to public violence, not necessarily by federal forces or police. Reviewers were said to be unaware of the history of the tweet, which since its posting has been pointed out to be a direct quote from a notorious Sixties police chief in Florida, who made the same statement during Civil Rights protests in 1967.
Nevertheless, Trump’s incendiary post remains up on Facebook, with no flag or explanation of its origin. Twitter, where Trump first posted the comment, flagged it as a post “inciting violence” as it went up.
Although Facebook executives didn’t give anyone cause to expect any big changes in policy, the company did say it’s planning to audit its system for handling hate speech this year, led by what executives would only describe as one of the “big three” consulting firms. The “big three” are generally considered to be McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Co. A report on the audit is expected to be made public.
Still, the boycott clearly has Facebook at the very least listening and trying to stem the flow of advertisers agreeing to join, if only from a concern about p.r.
Jeff Rosenblum, founder of creative and marketing agency Questus, agreed that the issue of hate speech is complicated, especially considering the size of Facebook and the number of posts and messages an average of 140 million daily users create. But he’s still advising many companies he works with to participate in the boycott, particularly big clients.
“Most big brands we work with are sitting out for the month, even if some don’t want to say so publicly, they’re doing it,” Rosenblum said. “There’s no reason to risk any backlash right now and there are other channels to move to.”
This is seen as only a short term effort, however, and Rosenblum said companies are “all hopeful that Facebook will change some behavior and tech and then they can run back.”
Given Facebook’s somewhat glib actions in response to the boycott so far, and the expectation based on the Tuesday advertiser call that no big changes are coming from Facebook, Rosenblum added that how companies respond going forward will depend on the public mood.
“It’s very much wait and see,” he said. “But this may be the opportunity for capitalism to show that it can really do something positive.”
As a leader itself of capitalism, Facebook’s actions may not bode well for that optimistic take.
Despite changes and investments the company has made in recent years, including Mark Zuckerberg saying late last week (a move reportedly planned before the boycott) that Facebook will for the first time label “newsworthy” posts if they incite violence, Color of Change says Facebook is simply still not doing enough when it comes to racialized hate speech.
CoC, which has met with Facebook and Zuckerberg repeatedly over the last five years, is still calling for an end to posts and ads meant to cause voter suppression targeted at Black users and the banning of posts by Black people discussing racism, as well as an end to all racist speech on the platform.
As WWD reported earlier this week, Color of Change is now also demanding that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, be fired for allegedly allowing hate speech to proliferate. Kaplan became a target of public ire in 2018 when he sat in support behind his friend, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as he was questioned by the Senate over accusations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford.
“We are tired of your empty promises,” CoC said in an open letter to Zuckerberg. “We know that as long as Joel Kaplan is working at Facebook, the platform will never meaningfully address or remove hate.”
A Facebook spokeswoman would not comment Thursday on calls to fire Kaplan. As for the mass call with advertisers, she only reiterated, “This is something we do routinely and will keep doing.”
Representatives of Color of Change and the NAACP could not be reached for comment on the future of the boycott, which is only set to last the month of July. But it’s unlikely the groups will give up on the momentum they’ve built.
Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, CoC’s deputy senior campaign director, told WWD last week that what happens next depends on what happens this month, but noted: “We are in a watershed moment in the country, for the first time in a long time we’re experiencing a cultural narrative shift.”
CoC and some other groups behind the boycott have now agreed to meet with Facebook executives, according to a report in The Information. WWD first reported last week that Facebook leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg were pushing for a meeting with the groups, which has met with Zuckerberg before to no satisfaction.