You’ve certainly heard by now about the different brands that are pulling their advertising dollars from Facebook for the month of July. What started as a sort of protest against the way that Facebook allowed the amplification of President Trump’s racist and hateful messages is starting to gain steam as more and more brands jump on the boycott bandwagon including most recently Coca-Cola. While it is true that Facebook has some hard questions to address (they’ve always had these issues), there are a lot of parts of this “boycott” that stink, and I do not believe that all of these brands are genuinely protesting in order to cause change.
The Moderation Problem
Facebook does not want to moderate content, but it must. In order to keep illegal content from surfacing on the platform, it has invested heavily in AI and it supports its filters with content moderation workforces around the world. Everyone can agree that there is no place for child pornography on a platform like Facebook.
The political space is much harder, though, because it is no longer a question of legality but of opinion. Policing opinions is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation with no clear end point. Hate speech should be easier to identify, you can remove a picture of a black person hanging from a tree straightforwardly, but someone who posts the hashtag #whitelivesmatter? In today’s context this is a provocative statement that is based in an anti-black position that looks a lot like racism. But is it? All lives matter, white ones too. If Facebook takes down this post, how will it be perceived? On June 29th 2020, I would say that #whitelivesmatter could be a form of hate speech. Will that social connotation change between now and next year?
Facebook is everything
Facebook is so big now that there is no way to please everyone. Any action it takes with have supporters and detractors. It has become the digital extension of society, for all its good and all its bad. No matter how much we want to blame Facebook, it’s the people on the platform who choose how to use it. I follow my friends, reputable news sources, brands I respect, and business leaders. My feed is mostly full of rainbows and positivity. There was outrage about George Floyd, but it was thoughful outrage combined with efforts to mobilize. Facebook plays a key role in unifying protest movements and a lot of the justice that is coming for the victims of police brutality is thanks to content amplification on Facebook.
So when brands start to talk about removing their ads from Facebook because it is no longer a brand safe environment due to polarization, I have to take a pause. My Instagram feed is full of luxury brands and people who I know who do a lot of traveling and eating at delicious restaurants. It’s a model of a lifestyle that I would love to associate any of the brands in my portfolio with. I might not check Facebook very often to get updates but if I see something interesting I click, because I’m in a discovery mode by default. I never click on ads on news websites because I’m there to read content.
Granted, I spend a lot of time filtering who I follow and what I see in my feeds. At the slightest content that shows ignorance or worse, I unfollow. This includes friends that I’ve known for decades. Call covid-19 the Wuhan Virus? You’re out. Comment positively on something that has a confederate flag, good bye. I control the content that I see and that ensures that I have positive experiences when I use Facebook.
Everyone does this to some extent, muting voices they don’t agree with and following those they do. After 15 years of Facebook this has resulted in the world’s largest echo chamber. People find people similar to them and feel safe expressing whatever they want because they hide behind a screen. Then they get sucked into discourse caused by people saying things with the only goal to get reactions. And this is where Facebook can be criticized. The algorithm that decides which content to show you is rigged to show you things that you will react to. It does not want to show you the blandest content out there. It wants you to like and engage so you spend more time on the platform. Hate speech gets a lot more engagement in quantitative terms than messages of positivity. Facebook should do more to move away from this approach so that less emphasis is placed on “viral” content and more on official sources of information.
And this is where Facebook really needs to take a long look in the mirror. Its filters catch a lot of stuff but misinformation is a huge problem. Misinformation cannot be disproved in a split second because people are just making shit up. Look at #PizzaGate. It should be a relatively straightforward case of libel against Hillary Clinton, but when you dig into the content there are words like “alleged” and “rumors” and “sources say…” If you spread a rumor and then say that rumors say, what you are posting is semantically true, even if the content of that rumor is clearly not. Facebook needs to evaluate if more control is needed, if there should be a delay between the moment when content is posted and when it is actually shared. But then who would control it? Who would decide? You could imagine how livid people would be if they think that Facebook was biased against them.
Facebook doesn’t want to look biased, and that’s why it doesn’t take down Trump’s posts. It can hide behind the fact that his posts are “necessary for the public to see” but it is really trying to not stir up the radical base that Trump feeds from. But it’s safe to say that in 2020 neutral is no longer an acceptable stance.
And so brands are using this as a moment to pull their ads from Facebook. Citing polarization, brand safety issues, and anti-right wing sentiment, brands are trying to show their stance against neutrality at this key junction in the history of humanity. But it is in many ways ingenuine.
What’s really going on?
First, none of the companies are talking about the real issues that I mentioned above. They want to come out on the right side of this moment of turmoil. Facebook looks like it’s not on that side right now. Facebook has actually made a lot of changes on the platform. People can disable all political advertising. They have a litany of controls to moderate the content they see. Facebook is adding verified sources to upweight legitimate information. It is also adding warnings when people share news articles older than 90 days to keep old stories from skewing context.
Second, Coca-Cola might look brave for pulling it’s ads, but they and other brands also have another reason: they don’t have a lot of advertising budget left. Cuts for covid-19 have been severe. No major summer events, no sporting matches or concerts to attend, lots of people sitting around at home. Coca-Cola has probably fared better than many other brands given its size and diversification, but budgets have been decimated by covid-19. It is one thing to say that you’re not going to advertise out of integrity by pulling budget and accepting the associated risks, and another thing entirely when you don’t have budget left and hide behind some social cause because it’s convenient.
Third, have you seen Coca-Cola commercials? Lots of people, being together, sharing beverages while doing fun things, without masks, without social distancing… You can see where I’m going here. The values that the brand associates with are impossible to promote during a pandemic that is only getting worse in the US. Share a cold beverage with a friend = share coronavirus. Not exactly the message that you want to put out there.
And finally, I bet a lot of brands out there are looking to reshoot their ads. Imagine a Unilever ad for a soap featuring a squeaky clean white family? Yeah, you’re probably going to want to find a more diverse set of actors in this current climate. So it’s convenient to pull your ads that could be brand risks under the cover of boycotting Facebook to give your creative teams time to rework assets. Anything today can become a lightning rod.
So I think that the boycott of Facebook is nothing but a smokescreen to buy brands time to re-evaluate their strategies and minimize the eventual risks of how their communications would be construed. There are significant, structural problems with Facebook, but none of the brands seem to be addressing those points specifically. Brands instead should show their cards with their actions: publicly criticize the American President. Hire more people of color into their corporations. Donate resources to helping former prisoners find work. Allocate staff to drive people to the polls on voting day. The list of actions that can create real societal change is endless.
Progress comes not from changing your logo to a rainbow in June or pulling your non-existent spending for a month from Facebook. It is walking the walk, for genuine reasons.