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Will Stop Hate for Profit force Facebook to change?

Over the past week, major brands have signed up to the Stop Hate for Profit campaign in an attempt to force Facebook to police its content more actively. But will they succeed?

What is Stop Hate for Profit?

This launched on 17th June. Here’s a summary of what it stands for and what it’s trying to achieve, summarised from the Stop Hate for Profit website:

Stop Hate for Profit has one simple goal: to convince social media companies to put people over profit. They are asking advertisers to pause their spending on Facebook and Instagram ads during July.

Why Facebook? The argument is that it is not doing enough to address ongoing issues with hate speech, incitement, harassment and misinformation. Advertising content is often placed in proximity to hateful content.

A company that makes $70 billion in revenue – about 98% of that from advertisers – and $17 billion in profit should, they argue, be doing more.

Despite making some improvements, it hasn’t been good enough when you have billions of users and rampant hate all over the platform 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Stop Hate for Profit suggest that improving the current situation shouldn’t be that difficult. Clamp down on common misinformation and conspiracies. Stop recommending hate. Make a number of clear, common-sense changes. Provide human beings to help people when they are being brutally harassed.

They argue that Facebook won’t take this seriously unless it is forced to do so.

Stop Hate for Profit #StopHateforProfit

How has Facebook responded?

Mark Zuckerberg announced a few measures last week in response to calls for change. Facebook will start flagging posts that violate its hate speech rules and prohibit harmful content in ads.

In truth, there’s little new here. Facebook already monitors ad content, although my personal experience of it is that it’s somewhat haphazard in its application. The human moderators who handle appeals are often slow to respond and aren’t permitted much leeway to exercise their own discretion.

It’s hard not to conclude that Zuckerberg has simply shuffled the deckchairs, hoping that the problem will go away.

Okay, so now what?

The pressure on Facebook continues to mount. An increasing number of advertisers – including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Starbucks and Levi Strauss – have announced their intention to pause at least Facebook ads in July. (Sleeping Giant is keeping a running list, if you’re interested.)

The list – and the cumulative impact on Facebook’s revenue – is growing. The company’s stock price fell by 8% on Friday. This wiped $56 billion off Facebook’s market value and dented Zuckerberg’s personal net worth by $7 billion.

The direction of travel is now clear. We can expect many more brands to add their names to the list of those boycotting Facebook in July, and possibly beyond.

Will this work?

So it’s all good, right? Big brands are putting principles before profits. Facebook (and other social networks) will have to toe the line. And the world will be a better, safer place as a result.

I’m not so sure.

For starters, history suggests that Facebook will not hurry to make anything more than small, cosmetic tweaks. They certainly won’t rush to make big investments in infrastructure or human moderators that will impact their profitability.

Brands are doing the right thing by hitting Facebook in the pocket. But the bigger question is: what will they do after July? Big global advertisers withholding spend for a month counts as a significant flesh wound. But what if Zuckerberg stands his ground – as he most likely will – and waits for the storm to dissipate?

What then? How pure are the brands’ motives? Will they really put principles over profits longer-term?

The TSC view

I’ve been talking about this with TSC contributors Henry Ellis and Christian Turner. Henry is a digital strategist at one of Europe’s most well-known agencies and Christian has experience on both agency and client-side, so they know what they’re talking about.

TIM: When someone like Unilever pulls their social media budget, that has an impact, right?

HENRY: Yes, that’s what will actually get Facebook to sit up and think about this. You’ll also see a ton of small brands who will say they’re going to sign up. But in reality, many are hoping the whole thing will get resolved in a week or two. Then they can switch the ads back on again.

TIM: That’s the acid test, right? Anyone can go on a diet for a week or two. But it takes more conviction to see it through to the end. We’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?

CHRISTIAN: An advertising boycott from big multinational companies is nothing new. There have been multiple rounds of this for YouTube, with huge names making a song and dance about pulling their YouTube budgets over insufficient content control and child safety concerns. The media latches on and provides a massive amount of coverage until the story dies down. Meanwhile, all those advertisers have had millions of dollars of free PR coverage and then switch their advertising back on.

HENRY: Sure. Big corporates such as Unilever can benefit from huge amounts of (free) PR, which helps offset the (paid) ads they’ve sacrificed. But smaller advertisers won’t be able to exploit PR to the same extent, so turning their ads off will have a marked impact on traffic and sales.

CHRISTIAN: The other thing to consider here is that brands can shift expenditure to other channels.

TIM: That’s a good point. They can move their marketing budgets across to, say, display advertising. [Advertising banners placed on third-party websites – Ed.] So they could be spending just as much via, say, programmatic ad buys, where their content could just as easily appear on far-right websites or alongside hate-related content. Which only ends up moving the same problem to a different place. But they still get to bang the PR drum about how they’ve stopped their Facebook ads.

And, of course, even if brands come off Facebook for July, there’s nothing to stop them simply spending that budget later in the year. Again, a cosmetic statement that covers no real change in behaviour.

Not that I’m suggesting all brands would be this cynical. But some will. And if I know one thing about brand marketers, is that they’re not ones to leave budget unspent at the end of the year. After all, they have targets to hit which impact their performance reviews, bonuses et cetera.

CHRISTIAN: I did smile at the fact that within a couple of hours of Unilever announcing their boycott, Mark Zuckerberg quickly jumped on a Facebook Live to reassure everyone that they are making changes. All very reactive – shareholders come first, rather than a proactive approach.

TIM: So, will Stop Hate for Profit force Facebook into making changes?

CHRISTIAN: Big brands pulling their ad spend does create a media frenzy. However, the lifeblood of Facebook’s advertising business is SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises – Ed]. This won’t have a huge impact on Facebook financially. It’s only for July, anyway.

TIM: A depressing prospect, but I’m inclined to agree with you. Finally, what about brands who don’t sign up to Stop Hate for Profit? Should we think any less of them?

CHRISTIAN: I don’t. There’s a huge amount of climbing on the bandwagon at the moment, with brands jumping on board to get some positive media and PR coverage. I’d argue some of those who have signed up are driven by FOMO rather than a genuine interest and values alignment. So for those who haven’t, I respect their decision to distance themselves from it.

HENRY: I’m nonplussed either way. It’s nice if they can sign up to it, as I support the campaign. But at the same time I don’t judge brands if they don’t sign up. As I said earlier, smaller brands probably won’t get the PR halo big brands do, and that could harm their business.

TIM: That makes three of us, then. I know it’s easy to criticise brands. To an extent they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And people will always be suspicious about just how altruistic their motives really are. After all, they’re businesses, not charities. Like it or not, the bottom line matters to them. And while not all brands will stand up for the right reasons, it’s a little unfair to attack them when they’re only a symptom of the problem rather than its root cause.

Your view

I posed the question of whether Stop Hate for Profit will force Facebook to change to our TSC Facebook group. Here’s what they thought:

Nearly 80% of our community agreed with Christian, Henry and me, with fewer than one in six having a more optimistic outlook. Time will tell if we were being pessimistic or just realistic.

The bottom line is this: Stop Hate for Profit is the right campaign with the right message. But it will take a sustained effort to drive genuine change from Facebook. And I’m not sure that, deep down, brands necessarily have the stomach for this fight. If Facebook doesn’t blink, what comes next?

Written by Tim Liew, with contributions from Christian Turner and Henry Elliss.

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