Now into the second week of the #StopHateforProfit boycott, Mike Teasdale explores what it would take to force Facebook to make a change.
Remember the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018?
People were outraged to learn about dodgy data-handling techniques employed to harvest the friend networks of 305,000 Facebook users who had taken a quiz. Data had been sold to a third party without the owners’ consent and then scraped to enable pro-Trump material to be sent to 87 million other Facebook users during the 2016 US Presidential election.
At the time, I thought that the outrage was a bit misplaced. The point is not that data was scraped. Facebook is not a community; it is an app, and data scraping to influence the way we vote is no different from data scraping to influence the things we buy.
No, the point is that the data was sold to a third party without the owners’ consent. Exactly the sort of thing GDPR regs are now designed to stop.
The titan of new media apologized, resorting to old media to do so with an open letter in newspapers. A few small changes were made before the news agenda moved on and Facebook went back to earning its billions.
I reckon the same fleeting storm in a teacup reaction will happen again now that Facebook is facing a boycott from major advertisers protesting the platform’s approach to misinformation and hate speech.
Firstly, even with north of 600 advertisers involved (including such big names as Unilever and Coca-Cola and Ford), it amounts to a tiny proportion of Facebook revenues. If my clients combined to boycott me to the tune of about 1% of my revenue, I’m not sure I’d be that worried, even in today’s COVID-19 world of reduced work.
Secondly, it’s a rather fuzzy group of reasons behind the boycott. Ostensibly it’s in support of the #StopHateforProfit campaign which is a coalition of different civil rights organisations in the US. That’s a very worthy cause, but there’s almost certainly some jumping on the bandwagon going on in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, plus some rather more hard-headed logic around budget-cutting due to COVID-19.
I’m no Che Guevara, but capitalising on a mix of cultural opportunism and convenience does not make for a radical fighter committed to a long-haul struggle.
Thirdly, the boy Zuckerberg is safe as houses in his ivory tower. He exercises total voting control over the company and cannot be removed by shareholders or the board, so I don’t think he’s trembling in his boots about the future.
Fourthly, and most crucially, the harsh reality is that advertising on Facebook works, especially for high interest categories or categories where the target audience is young. It offers reach and targeting like no other advertising platform. The lure is too strong for advertisers to stay away for long.
Besides, most of Facebook’s ad billions come not from the big brands filling the boycott headlines but from legions of small businesses. For these small businesses, Facebook represents an incredibly cost-effective advertising medium and they are unlikely to shut that collective tap off anytime soon, especially as they struggle to recover from COVID-19.
The bottom line is that Facebook is not going to change its approach. They will continue to espouse the view that online hate is a sad reflection of today’s society and they have a democratic duty to enable all to express their views. They will continue to downplay their role in aiding the spread of that hate via their algorithms and sharing mechanisms (the very features that make Facebook so powerful as an ad platform).
There will be some token changes and public guff about “we know we have more work to do”. Indeed, Facebook has already announced they will be prohibiting a wider category of hateful content in ads and will be labelling newsworthy content (the content exempted from moderation because an elected politician said it).
Ultimately though the changes will be tiny. They will employ the standard large corporate PR technique of being publicly conciliatory while privately resisting any change and waiting for the storm to pass. Why should they change their business model when it works like a dream?
So, I reckon the boycott will dent the Facebook brand reputation and lightly scratch its ad revenues in the short run but ultimately media allocation will go back to Facebook within months, if not weeks.
Unless they commit to a massive re-writing of their engagement algorithms it doesn’t matter how many extra moderators Facebook employs. When does a business built by growing reach and attention ever give way to responsible growth? Don’t hold your breath.