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Media & Marketing Net Giants

The Facebook Boycott is About Principle, Not Advertising

The news and the ad industry trades are full of the latest about the boycott of Facebook by big-name advertisers like Unilever, Coca-Cola and Starbucks. They were the fast-followers in the initiative led by brands like REI, The North Face and Patagonia. All have been to some degree inspired or led by the Stop Hate for Profit movement, a call by the NAACP, Color of Change, the Anti-Defamation League, and others, asking for a pause in Facebook advertising.

Wall Street analysts tell us “no worries,” Facebook will be fine. Part of their rationale: the top 100 brand advertisers are less than 20% of its revenue, the bulk of which is derived from small advertisers and direct response marketers who buy Facebook because it drives app downloads and web traffic. Most of them don’t worry about national social issues or the media spotlight.

Many say that this boycott is only happening because Covid-19 is giving advertisers cover to do something popular without it hurting their businesses, since the pandemic requires them to cut ad spend anyway. Many say that this boycott will quietly go away, like so many protests before it, when the heads of media shift back to their offices and fall back into the easy, comfortable and seemingly justifiable practice of buying ads on the massive social media platform. They have told their bosses for years that it was the smart thing to do.

Many are wrong. This boycott is not about advertising. It is about principle. This is about a media platform that wants to disavow any responsibility for policing the content that is posted on it or the advertising that is purchased for unfettered and highly-targeted distribution and redistribution across its membership.

Newspaper companies have always known that publishing crack-pot or controversial news stories could gain them more readers. The same for letters to the editor. They also know that they could generate more ad revenue and reduce costs if they automated their ad sales and let any anonymous ad buyer place any ad. But they didn’t.

Newspapers care about their communities and, importantly, are held legally liable if they published known falsehoods, or are negligent in the process, or run discriminatory ads. Facebook claims it is different. It claims it is a new kind of tech platform that should be immune from those kinds of expectations. So, too, did newspapers more than a century ago. “Remember the Maine” was an incendiary phrase promoted by newspapers aiming to sell papers in 1898.  They tried to claim special citizenship and along the way helped instigate wars to sell their products and further their owners’ politics.

Facebook’s platform distributes hate speech. That is unquestioned. What is questioned is whether in receiving $70 billion in ad revenue on the platform the company should take any responsibility for what it publishes and distributes. Its sole controlling shareholder says no. However, many of those who pay the bills say yes. Money will matter here. So too, will Facebook employees. The software that runs Facebook may not care about the hate it distributes and the harm it enables, but the people who make that software or those who service those advertisers are human. I bet they care.

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