Fifty-six billion dollars. That’s what Facebook’s share price lost on Friday after news that consumer giant Unilever would pull its advertising for the rest of the year. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth took a $7bn hit.
After years of ignoring its biggest problem, Facebook is finally being confronted by its inability to control disinformation, hate speech and the insidious rise of white supremacy (and all its viciousness) on its platform.
Years of promises to do better and to fix the problems, and initiatives like bringing in external fact-checkers and deleting malicious and bot accounts, haven’t stopped the innumerable controversies that have rocked the world’s biggest social network with its 2.3bn users.
But as Yoda has always wisely advised us: trying is not doing.
Advertisers who are conscious of their brands’ perception in an era of heightened awareness about hate speech issues in America have had enough. The long-simmering issue, including systemic racism and police brutality that has erupted after the murder of George Floyd last month, has finally pushed advertisers to find their moral voice.
Unilever’s shock announcement was followed by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Levi’s similar stances, while Starbucks joined the ad boycott on Sunday. Some 90 major firms are now involved. Social networks showed us, in the last few months, that they can censor disinformation about Covid-19 – if it’s a life-threatening global pandemic.
Facebook has been sucking up to conservatives for years, especially Republican lawmakers, fearing a right-wing backlash. But while it’s been trying to appease this small but vocal minority in America, it seems not only to have forgotten its original cause to connect people (not necessarily connect right-wingers who plan violence through groups on Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp) but also that its other major constituency – its advertisers – might find their moral backbone again. They finally have.
But, as always, change has been spurred by an outside factor, not Facebook’s own confused internal logic and tangled ethics: the unstoppable social tsunami of rage, outrage and sheer pain about #BlackLivesMatter.
After decades of horror killings of innocent black men by armed police, the country has erupted, and some meaningful changes appear to finally be the offing. And advertisers have finally voiced their disapproval of Facebook’s inability to reign in the hate speech, misogyny and anti-Semitism. They’re voting with their dollars, as it were, and the result is potentially going to cost Facebook billions in ad revenue.
More importantly, the stock market – uncaring as it usually is about ethical issues – does respond to financial stimuli, and billions of dollars in lost advertising certainly trigger events like Friday’s sell-off.
Facebook may take comfort in the fact that they’ve been here in a similar position and have recovered. But this is different – as any commentator of American politics can tell you – and these advertiser concerns are not going away.
But this is also an election year and after the gobsmacking manipulation in the 2016 US presidential election – by Cambridge Analytica, Russian disinformation campaigns, and savvy to destructive Eastern European youth making easy money with fake news stories about Hillary Clinton’s campaign box and pizza deliveries – they’re under the microscope.
“We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests,” according to a Facebook memo seen by Bloomberg. Now is the time, then Facebook, to find your moral compass and do the right thing. But I doubt it will.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail