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Over 400 Advertisers Hit Pause On Facebook, Threatening $70 Billion Juggernaut

Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change, one of the groups organizing an advertising boycott of Facebook for the month of July.
Dimitrios Kambouris
Getty Images
Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change, one of the groups organizing an advertising boycott of Facebook for the month of July.

When the Stop Hate for Profit campaign launched just two weeks ago, its organizers had not yet persuaded a single advertiser to boycott Facebook in July.

Now, more than 400 companies, from Coca-Cola and Adidas to Ford and Lego, have vowed to halt advertising on the social network, in a growing protest over how it handles hate speech and other harmful content.

For Rashad Robinson, this moment was a long time coming.

"Facebook has given [advertisers] no other option because of their failure, time and time again, to address the very real and the very visible problems on their platform," Robinson, president of the civil rights group Color of Change, told NPR.

Color of Change is part of the coalition behind Stop Hate for Profit, which also includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and other civil rights and advocacy groups.

The campaign takes aim at Facebook's advertising juggernaut, which accounted for more than 98% of the company's nearly $70 billion in revenue last year. The stated goal: "to force [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg to address the effect that Facebook has had on our society."

And it has caught Zuckerberg's attention. He has agreed to meet with the groups behind Stop Hate for Profit, Facebook said on Wednesday.

Retail chain Target, Dunkin' of doughnuts fame, and automaker Volkswagen were among the latest brands to join the movement, which is gaining traction across corporate America and around the world.

"Hate and dangerous online misinformation should not go unchecked," Volkswagen Group of America said in a statement on Tuesday. "We expect our advertising partners to reflect our values, and Volkswagen — as well as other companies — must hold them to the same standards we demand of ourselves."

Hershey, Clorox and Microsoft, which are some of the biggest spenders on Facebook and its sister platform Instagram, have also hit pause on advertising.


"We are breaking through in a new way"

Color of Change has urged Facebook for years to take a stronger line against hate speech, voter suppression and other misuse of its platforms.

But the group has struggled in the past at "fully breaking through to the public and to those in government about how dangerous this platform is," Robinson acknowledged. Now, he said, "we are breaking through in a new way."

The protests over police brutality and racism were a turning point, said Jim Steyer, CEO of the children's advocacy group Common Sense Media, another member of the Stop Hate for Profit coalition.

"I will admit, we did not expect that this would take off to this extent so quickly with so many of the most important advertisers in the United States and globally joining in," Steyer told NPR. "It just shows that they are frustrated, too, and that they share our concerns about democratic norms, about civic discourse and about what's going on Facebook and Instagram."


Facebook: "no incentive to tolerate hate speech"

Facebook disputes the idea that it financially benefits from toxic content.

"We have absolutely no incentive to tolerate hate speech," Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communication, told CNN on Sunday. "We don't like it, our users don't like it. Advertisers understandably don't like it."

The company says it spends billions of dollars on safety and works with outside groups to review its policies. It says nearly 90% of hate speech is removed by automated systems before users can even report it.

"We understand people quite rightly want to put pressure on Facebook to do more," Clegg said. "That's why we'll continue to redouble our efforts, because we have a zero-tolerance approach to hate speech. Unfortunately, zero tolerance doesn't mean zero occurrence."

On Tuesday, in its latest push to clean up the platform, Facebook said it had removed hundreds of accounts, groups and pages that it said were connected to the far-right extremist "boogaloo movement." It said the network of accounts had promoted violence and was being banned as a "dangerous organization."

The company has also been speaking directly with advertisers in video meetings and over email. On Monday, it said it had agreed to an external audit of its brand safety controls — how it makes sure advertisers' messages do not appear next to harmful content.

'They will allow politicians to lie'

The coalition had originally planned to launch Stop Hate for Profit in January but did not have all the pieces in place, according to Common Sense Media's Steyer. "We're glad we waited because this was the right moment," he said.

In recent weeks, Facebook's handling of inflammatory posts by President Trump has fueled outrage from politicians, civil rights activists and even its own employees.

Zuckerberg has taken a largely hands-off approach, arguing that people should be able to see what politicians say, even when their claims are false or objectionable. That's a sharp contrast to other social media companies such as Twitter, which began putting warning labels on some of the president's tweets last month.

In an unusual reversal, Zuckerberg said last week that Facebook would also start labeling posts from politicians, including Trump, that break its rules.

For Robinson, that doesn't go far enough.

"The problem at Facebook is both a problem in terms of the actual policy and the fact that they will allow politicians to lie, and the actual enforcement of policies that are currently on their books when the violations run up against powerful forces that they are afraid to hold accountable," he said.

The coalition is making 10 demands of Facebook, including giving advertisers their money back if their ads appear next to content that gets removed and cracking down on politicians' false claims.

Some items on the list are similar to policies Facebook already has in place, such as the demand to "stop recommending or otherwise amplifying groups or content from groups associated with hate, misinformation or conspiracies to users."

Facebook said on Wednesday that it has work underway related to some of the demands and is "exploring further changes."

Some brands stop short of making clear demands

While some of the advertisers who are pausing Facebook have signed on to Stop Hate for Profit's demands, others, such as Coca-Cola and Target, are taking a more cautious approach. They say they are reconsidering their spending on Facebook and, in some cases, other social media sites such as Twitter and Snapchat, but not formally joining the boycott.

It's not clear how many of the brands pausing their ads might have pulled back on advertising anyway because of economic pressures stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. But the campaign offers a way for companies to signal a stand against hate at a time when their customers are demanding more accountability and displays of solidarity with the protests.

"Corporate America kind of moves as a wave sometimes," said Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Platform Accountability Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School, who previously served as Facebook's privacy and policy adviser.

He said advertisers are being forced to weigh competing pressures. "They'll be able to potentially reach their customers a little bit less effectively" by quitting Facebook, he said. "But if they don't participate in the boycott, they will take a brand hit, and people will start to pressure them."

Calculating the boycott's financial impact

The boycott has been crafted "to hit Facebook where it counts, in the wallet," Steyer said. It has already crossed the Atlantic Ocean. This week, British insurer Aviva and German software giant SAP announced advertising pauses.

"We're expecting the next phase of the campaign to see more and more small advertisers around the globe joining in," Steyer said.

But even as the ranks of participants swell, many of Facebook's biggest advertisers are staying silent. Clorox, Microsoft and Hershey are the only three companies to pause spending among the top 10 advertisers on Facebook and Instagram in the past 30 days, according to estimates from Pathmatics, a marketing research firm.

Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods giant behind Pampers and Tide, was the top spender on both platforms during that period, according to Pathmatics. P&G has not joined the boycott, although chief brand officer Marc Pritchard said last week that the company was reviewing all of its media platforms. "We are not advertising on or near content that we determine is hateful, denigrating or discriminatory," he told an advertising conference.

Sara Gorman, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, another top Facebook marketer, told NPR by email that the retailer had not announced any changes to its spending but is "watching this very closely."

"We cannot afford to cede these platforms"

Facebook has more than 8 million advertisers, and the vast majority are small businesses who do not spend anywhere near the $60 million that Pathmatics estimates P&G spent across Facebook and Instagram in the last month. Last year, the top 100 spenders on Facebook made up just 6% of the company's total ad revenue, according to Pathmatics.

For many advertisers, there is little choice: Social media lets them reach specific groups of people at a fraction of the cost of a television commercial.

Take presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. He is an outspoken critic of Facebook – and his campaign is one of the company's biggest recent ad spenders.

"We share the concerns of companies who are speaking up about Facebook's inaction around making meaningful changes that protects our democracy," Biden spokesman Bill Russo told NPR. "But with less than five months until Election Day, we cannot afford to cede these platforms to Donald Trump and his lies."

Editor's note: Facebook and Microsoft are among NPR's financial supporters.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.