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The Facebook Boycott: It’s Only A Stunt If It Fails

Originally published:|Last updated:|Joy Howard

When we joined the #StopHateForProfit campaign, we pledged to suspend advertisements on Facebook and Instagram for at least the month of July and called on other companies to join us. We did so because we believe Facebook is no longer committed to spreading truth and supporting the work of journalists. Instead, it is playing fast and loose with misinformation, promoting hateful and misleading content, and undermining its civic responsibility to its billions of users.

Good news: The campaign has gained traction.

More than 500 companies — including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Honda, Levi Strauss, Verizon, and Unilever — have withdrawn advertising from Facebook. The campaign is going global, with activists lobbying companies with a mammoth international presence to pull not only American advertising but advertising in the rest of the world.

And we have Facebook’s attention. Yesterday, representatives from the Stop Hate for Profit campaign met with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. But the meeting, our representatives said in a statement, was not promising. “It was abundantly clear in our meeting today that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team is not yet ready to address the vitriolic hate on their platform,” they said.

To have any hope of hampering the social-networking giant’s impact on global politics, we must think big. Bigger than big. And those of us who have joined the cause must remain accountable to our goals.

A Facebook boycott serves only as a first step toward the kind of capitalist activism needed to break up Big Tech. I like to explain the incestuousness of Big Tech by comparing it to a rat king — it’s almost impossible to untangle the tail of one company from another’s. Even if one company’s platform is being used for good, the actions of the people on that platform may be obviated by those of the platform’s parent company. For example, even though activists flock to Instagram and are often quite successful in spreading their messages and raising funds there, it’s still owned by Facebook, which in turn funds and protects the hate speech posted by its own users. The rat king creates the perfect environment for political polarization to fester, all the while adding to its overall bottom line.

This is one reason tech executives — especially CMOs, like me — are very afraid to speak out. We’re afraid to damage our relationship with Facebook, we’re afraid of damaging our bottom lines, we’re afraid of signaling that we care about anything other than our bottom line, we’re even afraid to hurt the feelings of our friends and former colleagues who have gone to work there. But this is also one reason why I decided to join a smaller startup with shared ambitions to change this system. I was fed up sacrificing my values for a paycheck, and I was finished living in fear of retaliation from one of the Biggest of Big Tech. I was fed up with being worried about whether my employer might doubt my commitment to them because of my commitment to values that should be universal.

But I am only one person at one company, and Stop Hate for Profit has just begun. Untangling the tails of Big Tech will be a long, difficult process that demands sustained support. This is much more than pausing our ads on Facebook for one month — this is about demanding that the company make structural changes to ensure that they do not remain an engine of hate. In order for Facebook to restore faith among those who advertise with it, we recommend they do several things. They need to establish a permanent civil rights infrastructure in order to screen products and services for hate speech. They need to be regularly audited by an outside source to determine that they are actually doing what they say they are to stem hate speech. They need to remove groups — both public and private — that promote hate and conspiracy theories, as well as climate denialism. They need to ensure that they are promoting accurate political content by removing misinformation. And they need to have a concrete way for victims of hate speech and harassment on their platform to report what they have experienced — and for those reports to be received by a human.

These are just some of our demands; you can see the rest on the Stop Hate for Profit website. Large-scale boycotts of this kind can work, but only through collective power. In 2017, after numerous reports of sexual harassment against Fox News superstar Bill O’Reilly became public, more than 80 brands pulled their ads from his wildly popular show, The O’Reilly Factor; it was canceled not too long after. In 2018, Ivanka Trump was forced to shut down her eponymous fashion line, which had been dropped by several major retailers due a larger-scale boycott of products and services connected to her father.

In the social media age, boycotts have become more visible, and more personal — to see so many people tweeting or Instagramming in support of a protest can be downright inspiring. But those of us who work at places that spend money to uphold the status quo — whether it be Facebook hate speech or ugly Ivanka Trump sweaters — have a responsibility to ensure joining such boycotts is not an empty promise. Our recommendations for Facebook provide a reasonable and powerful start.

The consolidation of Big Tech makes the work of those who want to promote our companies much harder. But if we want to truly stop hate for profit, we'll have to be more thoughtful and deliberate with how, and where, we advertise. In the short term, this might cause our businesses some pain. But if we choose to not join a boycott to avoid that pain, we can be certain that in the long term, that pain will not only be felt by us, but by the world.

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