Facebook looks to contain advertising boycott over hate speech

Social media giant has been calling, e-mailing clients

Facebook Inc. is working to persuade its top advertisers not to pause spending on the social network, as it tries to keep a boycott from a handful of marketers from turning into a widespread revolt.

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Facebook executives in emails and calls with advertisers and ad agencies over the past week have conveyed that they are taking seriously the concerns of civil-rights groups about the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation on its platform. But they are also maintaining that business interests won’t dictate their policies, according to people familiar with the discussions.

“We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure,” Carolyn Everson, vice president of Global Business Group at Facebook, said in an email to advertisers last weekend that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests.”

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Facebook executives are also vowing to invest more to tackle hate on the platform including continuing the development of artificial-intelligence technology that can detect hate speech, according to the email.

Several advertisers such as ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia Inc.,  North Face, Eddie Bauer and Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) have said they would halt advertising on the platform. Their decisions came after a call from civil-rights groups including the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP last week to pull ad spending from Facebook for the month of July.

The pullback extended to large advertisers Thursday, with telecommunications giant Verizon Communications Inc. announcing it was pausing its Facebook and Instagram advertising.

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In a letter to advertisers Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League said Facebook has repeatedly refused to remove political ads that contained “blatant lies,” and has been slow to respond to calls to take down conspiratorial content.

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“Every day, we see ads from companies placed adjacent to hateful content, occupying the same space as extremist recruitment groups and harmful disinformation campaigns,” the Anti-Defamation League said in its letter. “Your ad buying dollars are being used by the platform to increase its dominance in the industry at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized communities who are often targets of hate groups on Facebook.”

Facebook declined to comment.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday joined a Facebook meeting with a group of big advertisers and ad agency-executives, according to people familiar with the conference call. Mr. Zuckerberg listened to advertisers’ concerns and reiterated the company’s principles of neutrality. He said political content can be seen as egregious by one side and not by the other, the people said. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, also joined the client council meeting, which had been scheduled before the civil rights groups called for the boycott and was reported earlier by Business Insider.

So far, many of the biggest advertisers haven’t joined the boycott, but several are seriously considering it, according to ad executives.

“Several of my clients are planning on sitting out in July,” said Barry Lowenthal, the chief executive of the Media Kitchen agency, an ad-buying agency owned by MDC Partners Inc. Some marketers are pausing because “it’s the right thing to do as a good corporate citizen,” he said. The brands, which are midsize advertisers, are likely to pause quietly, he added.

Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co. a trendsetter in the ad world, said it is reviewing all platforms on which it advertises for objectionable content. Facebook is included in that review, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company’s marketing chief, Marc Pritchard, on Wednesday vowed that it wouldn’t advertise “on or near content that we determine is hateful, denigrating or discriminatory.”

P&G met with civil-rights group Color of Change this week to discuss Facebook’s track record of removing content that violates their standards, according to people familiar with the matter. Color of Change joined the ADL and NAACP in calling for a Facebook boycott.

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A P&G spokesman said the company won’t name publicly the platforms from which it might pull ads. “We’re going to work with our partners to make sure our standards are met.”

Any pull back from Facebook—even a short one—isn’t an easy decision. The platform has become a must-buy for many advertisers because of its huge audience and the vast amount of data the platform has, which enables brands to efficiently target customers. Moreover, after significantly pausing advertising in the early days of the pandemic, companies are now anxious to ramp up ad spending as cities across the country begin to allow businesses to open up.

Over the past few years, Facebook has invested in workers and technology to guard against election interference and to better police its platforms, resulting in improvements in the removal of hate speech and other objectionable content.

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Some advertisers want Facebook to go further and have asked the social media giant for more transparency regarding where their ads appear and if their promotions appear adjacent to hate speech. They have also called for Facebook to improve its technology that it uses for detecting hate speech on its platform, according to people familiar with the discussions.

In her weekend email to advertisers, Facebook’s Ms. Everson said 89 percent of the content Facebook removed for violating its hate-speech policies in the six months to March was detected by its systems before anyone reported it to the company. Three years ago, that was the case for only 23 percent of such content, she said.

Some ad buyers say they are busy making contingency plans in the event that clients decide to participate in the advertising boycott. They are working to figure out other digital platforms to use in order to cushion any business disruption for them that could be caused by pausing Facebook ad spending.

Facebook and other tech giants have been somewhat immune from past moves by big marketers to curb their spending because the platforms don’t rely as heavily on large marketers, with the bulk of their revenue coming from small and midsize advertisers. Facebook’s U.S. revenue from digital advertising is expected to rise about 5 percent this year to $31.43 billion, according to eMarketer.

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Madison Avenue’s relationship with Facebook has been filled with angst.

Tensions boiled over in 2016, when The Wall Street Journal reported Facebook had overstated its video-viewing statistics for more than two years. Facebook acknowledged it had inflated reported viewing times by as much as 80 percent, and agreed to undergo audits by the media industry’s measurement watchdog.

In 2017, several companies—including P&G—pulled their spending from Alphabet Inc.’sYouTube after they found their ads running alongside extremist and racist content on the site.

The pullback didn’t make a major dent in the company’s finances. Still, advertisers believe that the YouTube boycott did cause Google to work more aggressively at policing its content, ad executives said.

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The Google brand safety crisis “really changed Google. They put proper tools in place and have been super responsive,” said one of the people. Google declined to comment.

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