Jordan: Lord knows this is not the first public outcry over content on Facebook. Those kinds of scandals are basically as old as the platform itself. This time, though, there’s some real weight behind the demands.
News Clip: Some big name companies are putting pressure on Facebook and they want the social media giant to do more to combat the spread of misinformation and hate on it’s platforms. Companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola are pulling their advertising spending for the next month.
Jordan: More than 800 companies and counting, including, as you heard, some big name brands have now joined a one month or more ad boycott of Facebook. It’s an impressive list. And it’s designed to hit the company where it hurts, in the revenue column. But will it? Facebook is gigantic. It’s as big as a digital platform can get. How much of a dent can even these corporate giants really put and it’s bottom line? Does Facebook have to act on this or can it just wait them out? And also, why have these brands jumped on board this time? Have they finally come to the conclusion that Facebook does more harm than good? Or is this a good chance to make a nice symbolic gesture and save some of their ad dollars in the process? And with less than four months to go until the 2020 election, what role will Facebook, and these brands that are currently boycotting it, play and how the vote goes down? I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Jesse Hirsch is a researcher, a futurist, and he’s the author of a newsletter Metaviews, which you can find at metaviews.ca. Hi Jesse.
Jesse: Hello Jordan.
Jordan: I feel like I’ve asked you this before, but I can’t remember the answer. Are you personally on Facebook? Do you use it every day?
Jesse: I am, yes. I’m not the most active user, but I probably log into the website or app maybe five, six times a day, usually to keep a tab on family. But in the small community I live in everything’s on Facebook. All the local municipal, county, local health unit, all of their public information is really delivered via Facebook. So in the pandemic, it’s become an essential service, kind of like the internet as a whole.
Jordan: Well, that’s what I wanted to wrap my head around before we get into the ad boy caught, is just how much Facebook and Twitter and others have benefited from the fact that we’re all in our homes all the time?
Jesse: Tremendously so. And I think part of it is a social infrastructure that, with physical distancing, it’s how we keep in touch with family and friends. But I think politically, and from a public health perspective, it’s been how many of us stay informed or the latest research, and economically, I think for a lot of small businesses, it’s how they’ve pivoted online to try to stay alive, to try to connect with their customers, and to try to remind people that they’re there and open for business and ready to serve them.
Jordan: And at the same time, there has been a growing call for Facebook to do something about hate speech. And, you know, I wish this was the first time I was saying this. It’s not. But this time it seems serious. So why don’t you just give me some context, how did this current Facebook ad boycott began? How did it start and who started it?
Jesse: Well, as you say, it’s been a long standing issue, and it’s in particular focusing on hate speech, but also extremism and political polarization in general. And that has been sorta circling or haunting Facebook for a number of years. The Cambridge Analytica episode, I think, was a focal point. But the Anti-Defamation league in the United States has really been pressing Facebook for a long time on their hate speech policies. And they started working with a coalition of other organizations like the NAACP, Color of Change, Common Sense Media, Mozilla, an organization called Sleeping Giants, really trying to figure out what the best pressure point or the best way to really try to push the company to be more responsible. And so this particular campaign was really meant to focus on advertisers and to, for the month of July, sort of try to create a pause button or a boycott, in which they ask advertisers to stop spending ad money for the month with the sole purpose of pressuring the company to be more responsible when it comes to hate and hate speech and extremist activity on the platform. Because, I think, there’s been many months and many years of lead time, I think that sort of primed the environment, but it also intersects with a general frustration among advertisers with Facebook as a whole. So it’s kind of the right place at the right time. And they seem to strike a very resonating cord that has led to this particular boycott being rather successful.
Jordan: Before we get into just how successful it is, you mentioned something there. What are advertisers frustrated about with Facebook?
Jesse: It’s quite a long running list of grievances, which I would say at the top of it, is just Facebook’s power. I mean, Facebook has consolidated the advertising industry from the media perspective, and that kind of power, I think advertisers and different advertising brands are really suspicious of. But the second or the other large issue is, is fraud and the effectiveness of Facebook ads and that whether it’s click fraud or whether it’s having your ads be associated with extremist content or be associated with content that advertisers are embarrassed to be with, there’s been a real sort of combination of concerns that have really allowed advertisers to almost feel as if they’re in bed with the devil, metaphorically speaking. In that they don’t like Facebook. They don’t like a lot of Facebook’s ad policies, and they also don’t know if their ads on Facebook are actually effective. But they feel compelled to be there anyway, cause that’s where everyone else is and that’s where their competitors are. So it creates a real catch-22 that this campaign was a very convenient, but also morally righteous out that allowed them to go, yeah, we all like Facebook. We don’t like the way that Facebook runs its advertising network, and we too are against hate speech. This is a great way to sort of back off and say, come on, you better listen to us. You better take us seriously. Or maybe we’ll take our money elsewhere.
Jordan: So how big has it gotten? Because I do remember lots of Cancel Facebook campaigns in the past that didn’t really do anything.
Jesse: Well, this is the largest by far. In particular, to your point, cause it’s not asking people to leave Facebook. I mean, that’s kind of the irony, but maybe also the success of this particular campaign, that for many people, and I would include myself in this category. There is no option– you can’t leave Facebook. It provides such a lifeline, such an important connection to your community and your family that you feel kind of compelled, kind of a bit of peer pressure to use it. But spending money on the site, that’s a whole different ball game. And so asking advertisers to take a month off, they’re not even asking them to take more than the month. It’s really meant to be a symbolic action. That’s an easy ask. That’s something, especially in July, especially in the midst of this pandemic, was something that a lot of these large companies could do. And currently it looks like there’s almost a thousand. Last I checked, it was over 850 and growing. But it looks like they’ll probably reach over a thousand major businesses committed to either not spending any ad money for the month of July, or until the campaign organizers feel that Facebook has said or done enough to address hate speech, which no one thinks that they actually will. But trying to hurt Facebook’s bottom line, to try to really get them, in terms of their business model, rather than trying to get people to leave the site, seems like a much more strategic effect to get the company to listen. And so far, certainly from the numbers of people, we won’t know total revenue loss until after, but from the actual number of participants, it seems to be the most successful campaign to date. And one that’s certainly getting quite a bit of attention.
Jordan: Give me an example– and we heard just a couple of them in the intro– but give me an example of some of the companies that are on board and how big it is.
Jesse: Well, Ford Motor Company, which if you think about automobiles and how much they spend, that’s pretty huge. Just this morning, I saw the City of Quebec, which while small, is really quite symbolic. You know, huge global brands like Adidas, who, of course, have a huge range of brands that they advertise on. Lots of smaller companies that quite frankly I haven’t heard of, but you know, big brands like Lululemon or Levi’s. So it’s really quite a diverse, but sprawling group. You know, Honda is another major auto manufacturer. Mozilla, which is a major web browser, Reebok, SAP, the big enterprise software provider. I mean, these are all major advertisers. And I would argue that these are still early days for this campaign, because it does seem like almost every hour, every day, there’s new companies rushing to add their name to the list, because it is kind of evoking the peer pressure that tends to compel people to use Facebook, maybe now we’re seeing a similar peer pressure of abstaining from advertising on Facebook, that perhaps enough companies in recognizing the public relations win, in recognizing the kind of moral win that they can get from joining this campaign, more will add their names to the list.
Jordan: I know we won’t know the exact totals of revenue loss until later, as you mentioned, but do we have any idea how much this matters to Facebook and just how big this campaign would have to be in order to like, make a real dent in their bottom line?
Jesse: Well, I think that’s a good question, and it speaks both to the economics of this campaign, but also the politics. And that’s where Facebook is not your typical company in that they don’t just think about economics. They don’t just think about the bottom line. Fundamentally, it is still owned and controlled by Mark Zuckerberg. He does have fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders, meaning he has the legal obligation to make them money. But I’m not sure he’s not motivated by money, quite honestly. I think, you know, he sees a grander plan for Facebook, and free speech is at the heart of it. And even though, you know, hate speech is arguably not free speech, I think this is an area where his stubbornness is about more than economics. And similarly, I don’t know if you use Facebook as often as I do, I haven’t seen any reduction in advertising, right? The irony of a platform like Facebook is you could have a thousand, you could have 10,000 major businesses say that they’re not going to spend ads, and there will be many, many thousands more who still will, who will see this as a competitive advantage, where, because the big ones are gone, now it’s their opportunity to try to go after those customers, and to go after that marketplace. And that may also be both the brilliance, but also the shortcoming of focusing on an advertiser boycot when maybe, while Facebook’s profits are derived from advertising, one could argue that their business is still based on personal information. And in so far, as people are still providing that personal information, you know, maybe the company will have a slower July. Maybe they’ll lose money in July, but as long as they still have all that personal data to improve their artificial intelligence, they’ll still be a very powerful and competitive company moving forward.
Jordan: Has Facebook addressed the campaign directly? Are they doing anything about it? Do they care?
Jesse: They do, they have. I mean, this is the political side, or the public relations side of these campaigns, that even though Facebook may not be that vulnerable from an economic perspective, they’re very vulnerable from a public relations and from a government regulation perspective. And as a result, they’ve been very responsive. They’ve been engaging every single day. Both with the campaign organizers, as well as the advertisers engaged in the boycot. A number of sort of mid-level or kind of second-tier Facebook executives have been publishing blog posts and having virtual meetings with both campaign organizers and advertisers. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have both been vocally speaking to the public, but they’ve also had calls one-on-one with campaign organizers and with advertisers. Now, I bring up the frame of politics, because they’re kind of just being politicians with empty promises, and they’re kind of just, you know, doing the whole song, a dance that any politician does when people are protesting, you’re trying to hold them to account in that it’s not clear that any substantive change or any structural change is actually being proposed. And that’s where the campaign organizers are still quite skeptical and are still calling for the boycott to last for all of July. But there is reason to believe that not only is Facebook vulnerable, but maybe they are willing to make some changes. But fundamentally, Mark Zuckerberg still believes in a definition of freedom of speech that many people are going to take issue with because it does allow for not only politicians to post lies on Facebook and not have it removed, but it also makes it possible for hate and hate organizing, extremist organizing, to still happen on the platform.
Jordan: What could they do, if they really were serious about meeting these demands? And I asked that first, like, you know, what could they do right now? But also how much of an impact would it have? Cause my feeling about Facebook is it’s, almost too big to be reigned in anywhere.
Jesse: I think you’re right about the last point that, that Facebook has reached a level of size and complexity, that I don’t even think Facebook can properly manage these problems. I mean, you know, we’re in the realm of philosophy and political science rather than just operating a network or operating a business. But there are, I think, measures they can take, which would satisfy the campaign organizers. And number one is accountability. And this is the idea, and I think advertisers want this for their own reasons, but the campaign organizers want this because, how can you trust Facebook to fix Facebook? So it’s the idea of having third party oversight or accountability. And to Facebook’s credit, they are about to release what they call a civil rights audit. Which is basically looking at the company’s civil rights practices and whether they are harbouring hate speech or whether visible minorities or people of colour are being treated differently on the platform than others. So they are interested in addressing the problem. But I think the trust issue comes back to regulation and comes back to whether it’s the government or whether it’s a civil society organization, that they should be the one sort of looking under the hood and getting a sense of what happens on Facebook. Cause that’s the other problem. It’s all anecdotal. We don’t know all that is happening on Facebook. We just know what journalists and researchers tell us, which we know is just the tip of the iceberg. Just a tiny fraction. The other issue that I think Facebook could do quite quickly is change their stance around what they call freedom of speech and the way in which hate groups are allowed to be onsite. And that’s very contentious because of the presidential election, and because of US politics, and because of politics around the world being very polarized because politicians and political parties can use Facebook as a way to really hype and spin and propagandize, that maybe shouldn’t be acceptable, that maybe there should be rules and laws to curb. And Facebook could do the right thing and step up and do that, and that’s part of what this campaign is calling for. But ironically, the last thing that they could do, which is also one of the key demands of this campaign, is to hire more human beings. So that if someone does see hate speech, if someone is a victim of abuse, then they can talk to a company representative. Then they can actually find recourse within the company and deal with someone who has the power to help them the way that they might call a police officer in the real world, or talk to a counsellor or talk to a social worker. You know, for Facebook to have those same types of human resources, that’s another thing that I think the company needs to commit to, especially given the ludicrous amounts of money they make. And these are actually small things that they could do almost immediately that, to your point, are not going to necessarily solve the problem, but they would go a long way to both protecting people and satisfying some of the concerns of both campaign organizers and advertisers.
Jordan: But they haven’t made any promises to do that yet?
Jesse: No. I mean, most of their promises are we’ll do better or we’ll study it internally. But that goes back to the credibility question of, how can you trust them? And how do you know that these measures will be effective? You know, hiring humans, they definitely haven’t committed to. Changing their policies around around lies and politics and campaign organizing, they’ve literally said they’re not going to change. And while they’ve sort of flirted with the idea of external oversight, the question of how powerful or penetrating that oversight would be is still a huge area of contention between the company and all the parties demanding it.
Jordan: You kind of touched on this earlier, but from the advertiser’s point of view, what do you think happens when July ends? And I ask this because you said the word symbolic, and it’s a word that I had down in my notes too. Is this something that it’s easy to do, to pause, save your ad dollars for a month and you get to look good? Or is this a united effort to really push for change?
Jesse: I think it’s a little bit of both, but definitely more of the latter in that I think the desire for change is so great that it is incentivizing otherwise competitors to find ways in which they can work to solve a common good, whether that good is society or whether that good is the advertising industry. And where some of the tea leaves hint at that are the advertising association spokespeople and the you know, the association people who are not with a specific company, but are empowered by the industry to represent their interests, they’ve been increasingly critical of Facebook and skeptical of Facebook to the extent that I think there will be many companies who, if this lasts for the month of July and they have both a moral reason to continue, but also an economic reason, because they’re all still advertising. They’re all still spending their money on digital media. They’re all still trying to reach customers. And if this has incentivized or provoked their marketing and advertising departments and budgets to find success elsewhere, then no, they’re not going to come back. Because for them, the issue here is not just moral, it’s impact. They were never satisfied with the return on investment they were getting from spending money on Facebook. And if this forces them or encourages them to innovate and find other digital areas to spend their money on, like influencers directly, for example. And, you know, doing an end run and getting rid of Facebook, or more specifically, Instagram as the intermediary, and instead giving this money directly to the content creators, AKA influencers, and getting a better return, well, that definitely spells trouble for Facebook in the long term, because then it’s not just about morality. It is about the bottom line. And it is about advertisers realizing that Facebook may be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Jordan: They should try podcasts.
Jesse: Well, it’s funny you say that podcast advertising continues to grow for that reason, that it does have a much higher impact than sort of general Facebook ads as a whole.
Jordan: See, I hope these people are listening. We talked once, I think it was the first time that we had you on this show, and it was right around the time more of the Cambridge Analytica stuff was revealed, and we talked kind of about what role Facebook played in 2016 and would play in 2020. And at the time you kind of thought that unless somebody intervened, Facebook’s weight on the electoral machine in the United States would only get bigger. And has that proven true? Is it going to be a bigger factor in this campaign or less?
Jesse: A hundred percent true, in that Facebook, I think, is the King maker. And I mean that in the literal sense of the word that we may no longer be talking about a presidency.
Jordan: Oh boy.
Jesse: But jokes aside, Facebook’s role in global politics, absolutely. But American politics, even more so, is tremendous. And it’s both in the polarization of really pushing people into opposing camps, but also voter mobilization and/ or voter suppression that Facebook plays a huge role in motivating people to– especially in a pandemic, to risk their lives, to go to the ballot box. But also why they’re motivated to do so. Especially when it comes to supporters of the current president of the United States, in that while I think the overall public opinion has the majority of Americans disliking him, he doesn’t need that to win. To win, he only needs a certain amount of Americans in certain States to actually show up and vote. And the Trump campaign, they’re outspending the Democratic campaign on Facebook. Last I checked, it was a margin of almost 20 to 1. And the campaign staff that the Trump campaign had dedicated to digital in general, but Facebook in particular, was something along the lines of 5 to 1, or 10 to 1 compared to the Biden campaign. That they very much see their path to victory as involving Facebook. And that tells you a lot as to why Facebook does not want to be perceived as being anti-Conservative or anti-Republican or anti-Trump. And on the one hand, there’s a part of me that sympathizes with that very difficult political position that Zuckerberg and the campaign and the company are in. But at the same time, you need a moral backbone and you need to be able to say, man, this is. Not a good position to be in, historically speaking. And that’s, to your question, I think that equally scandalous to the nature of American politics today, is Facebook’s role and responsibility in it. And I think that’s exactly why this campaign is taking the strategic tact that it is. And also why it’s successful. Because I think there is a general awareness, certainly in the advertising industry, because they understand how Facebook works and how it influences people, that its impact on politics is the real crime, is the real danger, and it needs to be addressed. And it may already be too late. We may be at a point where any changes are going to be too little, too late to impact the outcome of the upcoming election.
Jordan: Oh, well, that’s happy news.
Jesse: I mean, don’t get me wrong. I think, as always, the Democrats deserve tremendous fault for choosing a terrible candidate, right? They did it last time, they did it this time. And you know, the inability to offer a compelling alternative is why a lot of people don’t vote. And because those people don’t vote, an idiot who can get 25 to 30% of the population wins. You can’t blame all that on Facebook. But nonetheless, Facebook has a lot of responsibility, a lot of complacency when it comes to the terrible mess of contemporary North American politics.
Jordan: Thanks for walking us through this, Jesse.
Jesse: My pleasure, Jordan.
Jordan: Jesse Hirsch, and you can find his newsletter at metaviews.ca. That was The Big Story. If you want more big stories, they are on our website, as they always are, at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can subscribe for free in any podcast player you like, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favourite. You can also email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And finally, come follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. We post lots of fun stuff, mostly podcasts. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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