A WARNING SHOT ACROSS FACEBOOK'S BOW

By Alizeh Rasool

9/22/2020

It is probably an undisputed fact that mastering Facebook marketing is extremely important for every brand that wants to excel in social media networking today. Facebook has a huge audience with nearly 1.56 billion people using it every month. It is the third most visited website globally after Google and YouTube. It ranks second only to Google as a top ad buying platform and is estimated to surpass $70 billion globally in advertising revenues this year. The US and Canada account for only 10.1% of Facebook users, however a whopping 47.8% of the company’s revenue comes from these two countries alone.

There is no doubt that Facebook is a very powerful advertising platform, especially in North America. One of the keys to its power and position comes from its “walled garden” ecosystem where it offers advertisers access to its own private user data. It provides centralized audience management which makes it convenient for marketers to use. Through people-friendly features like commenting, reacting, sharing and personalization of content, it collects deep information about a user’s interest and networks and even classifies it based on demographics, gender, likes and dislikes for clients to use.

The Warning Shot

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the Facebook platform. Over the years it has been accused of allowing users to spread misinformation and hatred. This began broadly in 2018 when Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm was found to have had used Facebook users’ data without their consent in manipulating the 2016 U.S. election results. Facebook again went into controversy in 2019 when Apple IOS users' location and messages were tracked by the former app. Facebook has been heavily criticized for not taking appropriate steps against this behaviour.

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This ongoing issue was again ignited after the killing of George Floyd following weeks of protests against police violence and racial injustice. On June 17, 2020, various civil rights groups including the Anti-Defamation League launched a #StopHateForProfit campaign and urged companies to stop advertising on Facebook during the month of July 2020. The main reason provided was the flawed policies of Facebook which allowed for the spread of racism, hate, violence, and misinformation about voting across their platforms. These policies had long been questioned by various advertisers as well as government agencies, but Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook didn’t do much in the name of protecting “free expression”. However, in July 2020, for the first time ever, 100’s of major companies in Canada and the U.S. united in a boycott against Facebook to protest the still-prevalent hate speech on Facebook’s platforms.

What’s being done by Facebook?

Over the years there has been much debate and criticism about Facebook’s reaction to its claims of spreading misinformation and hatred on the platform. Some critics believe it has been a situation of “too little, too late”.

The #StopHateFor Profit campaign claims a victory of the July advertising boycott saying “The success of this campaign is unmistakable. We forced an unprecedented public examination of Facebook’s deep harms to marginalized communities and the health of our democracy.” On their website they also state that “their movement will not go away until Facebook makes the reasonable changes that society wants. The ad pause in July was not a full campaign – it was a warning shot across Facebook’s bow.”

The boycott did not make a major dent in Facebook’s revenues, it did however cause some harm to Facebook’s image as well as caused them to step up and improve some of its policies around privacy and misinformation.

As a result of the boycott, here are some of the measures they have taken:

  • Facebook announced the creation of a senior role to oversee civil rights.

  • They established a dedicated team to study algorithmic racial bias.

  • They publicly released their long-delayed civil rights audit that demonstrated their “vexing” policy decisions were "setbacks for civil rights."

  • They committed to a new independent audit may satisfy #StopHateForProfit’s demands if it is independent, transparent, and public.

  • They have begun acting against some hateful movements like Boogaloo.

  • In July this year, Facebook Inc. said that it will start labelling newsworthy content that violates the company’s policies. It also assured that the company would work towards creating a balance between Hate Speech and Freedom of Speech.

  • Facebook also said that the platform had some software loopholes through which the bugs attacked. They have now been resolved and continuous steps have been taken towards increasing transparency.

Mark Zuckerberg clearly stated after the #BlackLivesMatter protest that he did not want to adjust his policies based upon financial pressure. The changes being made by Facebook reflect their ethical values rather than revenues. Facebook’s brand image was affected in the short-term but there was hardly any financial loss. In fact, Facebook itself claimed that their ad revenue grew by 10% over last year, in the first three weeks of July and is predicted to grow at the same pace in the year ahead. This is a slowdown in revenue for Facebook, but it is more attributable to COVID than to the boycott.

What’s ahead?

This story is not going away anytime soon. Civil rights groups like #StopHateForProfit and the pending U.S. election in November will keep the pressure on Facebook and its other social platforms to continue to respond to these violations and strengthen their policies.

As for advertisers, it is totally an ethical decision whether they wish to continue advertising on Facebook or not. The fact that the top 100 companies contribute to just 16% of Facebook’s total ad revenue clearly shows that the major chunk of its profits does not come from big brands. In the rush of the hour, large marketers stopped their ads for a month. Moving forward they will surely need to weigh the pros and cons to find a balance between their potential revenue losses and social acts to remain in market.

It is the millions of small businesses that depend directly on Facebook for marketing that continues to play in Facebook’s favour. These businesses cannot afford to boycott for any length of time. Participation in the boycott can be effective in drawing a message about a brand’s social concerns and forcing a response by Facebook, however, in the long run, especially for these smaller businesses, it would negatively impact their growth.

There is no doubt that the boycott brought about changes. This is a very good thing. We also believe that more change is needed and whether there is another call for a boycott or not, Facebook will continue to improve its policies. At Peloton Media we had many clients who chose to boycott in July, some even for the remainder of the year. Facebook is a powerful and effective advertising platform to reach consumers and will continue to be. We support the individual decisions of all our clients, but we do stand for change and improvements of Facebook’s privacy policies.

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