Facebook Advertisers Boycott: American Civil-Rights Groups Combat Misinformation Online
Political Adverts on Facebook
During the first quarter of 2020, Facebook reported over 2.6 billion monthly active users, making it the biggest social media sites in the world (Facebook, 2020). Notably, 62 percent of U.S. adults have claimed that they get their daily news from social media platforms – approximately 203 million people (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). As a result, the traditional gatekeepers of information – such as TV networks and newspapers – are being bypassed. Individuals are able to access information at a rate never seen before, and they are turning to social media sites to do so.
In 2019, around 98.5% of Facebook’s annual revenue came solely from advertisements, equating to around $69.6 billion. Major corporations look to the platform to promote their products and, essentially, their company image. However, during the 2019/2020 election cycle, approximately $790 million has already been spent on political advertisements on Facebook (eMarketer, 2020). The top spender, President Donald J. Trump, has spent over $21 million on more than 218,000 ads across a variety of platforms (Carrie Wong, 2020). This is expected to increase in the run up to the 2020 election, as Trump’s 2016 election campaign reached a total of 5.9 million advertisements – a significant total when compared to that of Hillary Clinton’s 66,000 (Bell, 2020).
According to a study conducted by Michael Franz, PhD, a 1,000-ad differential over the course of an election increased the candidate’s vote share by around 0.5%. Albeit, it may seem like a small advantage, Franz asserted that it “could make a difference in a close election”, especially if the use of advertisements by one political party are much higher than their foe (Dingfelder, 2020).
It is not only the use of political adverts that presents an issue for the future of free and fair elections, but also their content. On the 17th of June, President Trump’s re-election campaign ran over 80 advertisements targeting “Antifa”, having previously threatened to have the movement labelled a terrorist organisation – despite there being no such official organisation (Woodward, 2020). Featured in the ad was a picture of an inverted red triangle, a symbol used by the Nazi’s to label political prisoners during the Second World War. After being up for more than a day, the advertisements were removed by Facebook, stating that their “policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol”. However, according to Facebook’s metrics, by the time the post had been taken down, it had already been viewed by hundreds of thousands of accounts. In turn, political campaigns are able to make illegitimate claims regarding specific issues in an attempt to sway the vote of the electorate.
Furthermore, anonymous outfits are able to inject dark money into political adverts, leaving no trace as to where the funds originate from. For example, in the U.K., a website by the name of “Britain’s Future” anonymously spent over £360,000 on Facebook ads throughout 2019 promoting a hard/no-deal Brexit (Sandhu, 2019). Since the decisive 2019 U.K. election saw Boris Johnson rise to power, and with the potential of a no-deal Brexit on the horizon, the website has gone blank. In essence, a faceless political agenda was pushed, using Facebook as its platform – and it won.
‘Stop Hate for Profit’ Campaign
In response to Facebook’s inaction, and in an attempt to redress the balance, the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign has been launched by a collective group of civil-rights organisations. At the heart of their message is an appeal to corporations to halt all advertisements on Facebook in the U.S. throughout the month of July. In return, the hope is that a significant impact on Facebook’s reputation, as well as a reduction in revenue, will force them to re-evaluate their current policies which enable the spread of misinformed and divisive information (ADL, 2020).
Since the campaign began, over 1,000 companies have joined the boycott. Notably, on Friday the 26th of June, Coca Cola and Verizon, amongst other corporations, announced that they would be withdrawing advertisements throughout July. Additionally, Unilever announced that it would pause all of its ads for the rest of the year. As a result, Facebook’s shares dropped by $56 billion in market value.
An initial response from Facebook saw them announce a ‘Voting Information Center’, which includes various details surrounding participation in democratic processes, such as the location of polling stations (Gleit, 2020). The company also announced in 2018 that it would set up an independent board to oversee Facebook’s content decisions. However, it has now been announced that it will not be able to fully operate until “late fall” – potentially after the 2020 U.S. presidential election has passed (Woollacott, 2020).
Despite these superficially positive steps, Facebook has continued to refuse to remove posts by President Trump, which contain false statements regarding voter-fraud and threats of violence directed towards Black Lives Matter protestors. In response to criticism, Zuckerberg claimed that that “we [Facebook] should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers” (Zuckerberg, 2020).
The Centralised Power of Corporate Interests:
The current boycott highlights the growing immunity of large corporations. In the U.S. – where it is primarily taking place – social media platforms are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This act provides social media platforms with a broad level of immunity over how they choose to regulate the content of their websites, as they are defined as “publishers”, so are not held to the same standards as news sites (Communications Decency Act, 1996). Facebook are therefore granted a sense of autonomy, regardless of how damaging their policies may be.
Moreover, in response to the boycott, Zuckerberg recently stated in a private meeting that Facebook is not going to change its policies “because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue”, assuming that “all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough” (Clayton, 2020). Therefore, it appears that Facebook is unconcerned with the boycott, or the future implications of its current policies on democracy, because it is set to keep generating revenue; the U.S.A. is “evolving into an economy and democracy of the 1 percent, for the 1 percent and by the 1 percent” (Stiglitz, 2019).
The unchecked power of Facebook means that it is exempt from enforcing policy changes that can safeguard democratic processes within the United States, and around the world. Accordingly, the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign is an attempt to regulate this power through an act of self-governance by other corporations, via an assault on Facebook’s monetary gains. Whether this boycott will invoke the provision of such safeguards, is yet to be seen.
However, one thing is certain. Facebook claims to be holding up a “mirror” to society (Clegg, 2020), but the reflection in the mirror is blurred by dark money and the spread of misinformation. Without the establishment of a robust system of legitimacy and transparency for social media platforms, anonymous groups will continue to pull the strings from the shadows, leaving in its wake a fractured and misinformed society.
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