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How the Facebook Ad Boycott Will End
Facebook may follow YouTube, which made real changes in response to a 2017 advertiser rebellion — and emerged stronger than ever
Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.
What started as a call by civil rights groups last week for businesses to suspend advertising on Facebook and Instagram has snowballed into a legitimate crisis for the social media company. In a 24-hour period starting on Thursday, corporate giants Verizon, Unilever, and Coca-Cola announced that they would “pause” their advertising on either Facebook specifically, or social media in general, as part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign. Organizers hope to pressure Facebook into more actively monitoring, moderating, and demonetizing hate speech and other misinformation.
Crises are nothing new for Facebook, obviously, but this one hits the company where few others have: square in the bottom line. Its stock price dipped 8% Friday as the big-name brands piled on. Whether it will lead to meaningful change in how the company does business, however, is unclear: Facebook’s ownership structure insulates CEO Mark Zuckerberg from shareholder pressure, and its ad revenue is so vast and diversified that it can easily withstand a short-term hit from major advertisers. Unilever, for example, spent an estimated $42 million on Facebook ads in the United States last year, per the New York Times. That’s a drop in the bucket of a Facebook ad business that rakes in some $17 billion per quarter.
Ad boycotts as a mechanism for reforming social media.
💬 To understand how the Facebook ad boycott might play out, it’s worth revisiting a notable precedent that has been oddly overlooked in most of the current media coverage. In 2017, Verizon, Walmart, Pepsi, and others pulled their advertising from YouTube after an investigation by The Times showed the Google-owned video platform was running ads alongside content from Nazi and terrorist groups. Google responded with a public apology and a suite of substantive changes to its ad policies, tightening its control over what channels could be monetized. A second YouTube ad boycott in 2019, led by Disney and Nestlé among others, focused on videos and comments that sexually exploited minors, and led to another crackdown.
💬 The 2017 changes were decried as an “adpocalypse” by the likes of Swedish gamer PewDiePie, who held the title of most-subscribed YouTuber for years and whose own anti-Semitic jokes had helped to spur the boycott in the first place. The policy updates largely stuck, and YouTube became a somewhat more buttoned-up platform as a result. It turned out that making hateful channels unprofitable went a long way toward disincentivizing them.
💬 YouTube’s response to the boycotts was also an example of how advertiser-driven changes can bring collateral damage, because “brand safety” and the public interest don’t always align. Over the years, the platform’s “advertiser-friendly” content guidelines have hurt not only hate groups and terrorists, but LGBTQ creators and Hong Kong democracy activists.
💬 Ultimately, YouTube emerged from the ad boycotts bigger and stronger, rather than weaker, as a business. The big brands that had withheld ad money generally restored it after the company made changes. The upshot is that YouTube today is more restrictive and carefully moderated, though its fundamental model is unchanged. It continues to be problematic in other ways, such as nudging users toward increasingly polarizing and extreme content via its recommendation algorithms.
💬 What that tells us is that ad boycotts of social media platforms can work — if the goal is to spur incremental changes to their policies, rather than an overhaul of their basic structure. In Facebook’s case, it seems likely that the company will find ways to accept some of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign’s recommendations, while skirting those that would cause the company the most friction with Trump and other conservatives who want it to keep its hands off of their content.
💬 Facebook has already started making changes, albeit not solely in response to the boycotts. In a live-streamed announcement Friday, Mark Zuckerberg said the company will start applying warning labels to posts by public figures that violate its rules. That’s quite a reversal from just last month, when Zuckerberg went on Fox News to chide Twitter for putting warning labels on Trump tweets, saying that platforms shouldn’t be the “arbiter of truth.” The crow-eating was not lost on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who retweeted my tweet noting the similarity of Facebook’s new policy to the one Twitter pioneered. A nuance is that Facebook claims its labels still would not have applied to the Trump posts that Twitter moderated, because its policy remains to take down rather than simply label posts that it deems to incite violence or suppress voting. (It deemed those Trump posts not to be in violation at all.)
💬 Zuckerberg also said Facebook would step up its efforts against voter suppression posts and ban ads that portray specific groups as dangerous or contemptible based on their identity. Tempting as it is to link these announcements to the ad boycott — they came less than a day after Verizon and Unilever joined — Facebook’s policy tweaks were almost certainly in the works already. Zuckerberg himself framed them as a response to prior commitments to a civil rights audit and to reviewing its policies ahead of the 2020 elections. That claim is supported by reporting from Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary on June 2, in which Zuckerberg signaled interest in warning labels in a leaked internal meeting.
💬 Clearly Facebook will need to do more to quell the boycott. After all, Coca-Cola joined after Zuckerberg’s announcements Friday. And Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights group Color of Change, which helped organize the campaign, called the Facebook chief’s live stream “11 minutes of wasted opportunity to commit to change.”
💬 Just how much more Facebook has to do will depend on what the brands involved are really hoping to achieve. To the extent that they’re worried about their ads running next to hateful content, Facebook will have to, at the very least, step up its demonetization practices, as YouTube did. But if that’s all they’re worried about, Facebook might get away without addressing the campaign’s primary calls for human moderation of private groups and hands-on support for users who feel targeted on the basis of their race. Verizon’s chief media officer implied as much when he said the company will resume advertising on Facebook if it makes changes similar to those implemented by YouTube.
💬 There is also the even more cynical view that this boycott represents a no-brainer for companies that were already looking to cut their ad spending amid the Covid-induced economic slowdown. By signing on, big brands get to save money and win free media attention for standing up to the civil rights bogeyman of the moment. You’ll find support for this dispiriting theory in Shoshana Wodinsky’s excellent Gizmodo story, which reveals that few of the brands participating have actually committed to withdrawing their ad money from all of Facebook’s properties.
💬 None of this is to dismiss the ad boycott as a sham. Clearly it is putting real pressure on Facebook, and it seems quite possible that real changes will ensue. But anyone who sees it as a major turning point in the social network’s history is likely to be disappointed.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time
🗨️ On Friday, the tech and VC communities were rick-rolled by a “nonexistent product” marketing itself with a string of emojis (👁👄👁). A group of young tech workers added those emojis to their Twitter profiles, launched a website, and sent hype-stoking tweets from a mysterious new account. After several hours (and some media coverage), the group published a statement revealing there was no app, no product: All of the messaging was geared toward raising money for causes dedicated to fighting racial injustice. (One anonymous 👁👄👁er close to OneZero said they received investment offers from VCs, sight unseen, before they pulled the curtain back.) “We raised over $60,000 in donations from people who hoped to get special treatment within our fabled waitlist… In a strange way, this sort of became an anti-statement against what we’d all seen on tech Twitter. We’re a diverse, ragtag group of young technologists tired of the status quo tech industry, and thought that we could make the industry think a bit more about its actions,” the statement read in part.
🗨️ Web.com, a service that registers domain names, said it is taking action against white nationalist website VDARE for violating its “Acceptable Use Policy.” VDARE will be delisted from Web.com’s registry and forced to find another service that will host its domain name. As of today, the site is still up.
🗨️ Google will start applying “Fact Check” labels in its image searches. “The power of visual media has its pitfalls — especially when there are questions surrounding the origin, authenticity, or context of an image,” the company said in a blog post announcing the feature, which will draw on information from independent sources that use a fact-checking service called ClaimReview.
Headlines of the Week
— Quinn Myers, MEL Magazine
— Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic
— Ashley Reese, Jezebel
While we have your attention…
Medium recently launched a blog about the fight against anti-Black racism. We are committed to a long-term conversation about awareness and change so that anti-Blackness is confronted and, with time, wiped away. Follow it here.
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