Brands boycotting Facebook are doing nothing more than virtue signalling

Why is one form of fighting discrimination, which just so happens to be popular today, the only form of incitement that matters to these brands?

Facebook symbol  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Facebook symbol
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent riots, social media networks have faced a wave of renewed criticism for the way they handle – or don’t handle – social media hate speech and incitement to violence. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has teamed up with the NAACP and other organizations to launch a social media campaign, “Stop Hate for Profit,” urging brands to boycott Facebook’s advertising campaigns for the month of July.
I support corporate responsibility against the promulgation of incitement to violence. The sad reality, however, is that these same brands – which are now magnanimously boasting about how they’re “taking a stand against racism” – had no problem using Facebook’s ad services in 2015-2016, when Israelis were being slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists on a near daily basis, and using Facebook’s platform to incite and praise the violence. And that’s only the beginning.
Facebook’s platforms have been used for years to recruit and grow hate groups, including white supremacists, radical Islamists, and other antisemitic groups. Content on the platform with millions of views and shares includes Holocaust denial or revisionism, explicit calls to violence (particularly in Arabic), antisemitic conspiracy theories, and antisemitic tropes. In the last few years alone, we have also seen a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents of violence in the United States and other countries. And yet, none of these brands ever felt that taking a stand against antisemitism was important enough to boycott Facebook ads.
Moving away from antisemitism, Facebook is a highly flawed platform with tremendous problems of political bias. Former employees have spoken about a concerted political bias in the company, and the way they have built their network encourages hateful content to be served more hateful content according to the algorithm. Their system is so problematic that it enabled oppressive countries like Russia to use it for significant electoral interference.
This, too, wasn’t reason enough for companies to take a stand, even temporarily like today, against Facebook’s mismanagement.
Unilever, Coca-Cola, Patagonia, Verizon Wireless, and The North Face are among major brands to pull advertising, with each affirming their (mostly abrupt) commitment to racial equality. Patagonia even went so far as to write, “We will pull all ads on Facebook and Instagram, effective immediately, through at least the end of July, pending meaningful action from the social media giant.”
Meaningful action? Facebook was used as a platform by the internationally recognized terrorist organization Hamas to call for explicit violence against civilians, and used as a tool to unite lone terrorists with the hashtag #StabbingIntifada in Arabic.
The incitement was so severe in 2015-2016, that Palestinian children as young as 13 carried out stabbing attacks, and even told police afterward that it was because they wanted to be a hero, like what they saw on Facebook.
WHERE WAS the corporate conscience then? Why is one form of fighting discrimination, which just so happens to be popular today, the only form of incitement that matters to these brands?
Hate against Jews, Muslims, women and LGBTQ people on Facebook; that was fine with these brands. Is it only once there is an international uproar over anti-black racism that suddenly these brands have a conscience? It’s good that the public is finally paying attention, but don’t be too persuaded by brands latching on to social issues.
Companies are talking about accountability from Facebook by harming their “bottom line,” while trying to make up for the lost advertising dollars with PR about being “against racism.” Additionally, it’s unconfirmed if the majority of these brands have also pulled ads internationally, or from Facebook’s Audience Network, which displays ads on third-party platforms. If not, the PR stunt is completely harmless financially to Facebook.
The campaign claims that Facebook allowed “incitement to violence” against protesters following the death of George Floyd, and provides a list of recommendations that if implemented only give Facebook more power, not less.
One of the demands states, “Create internal mechanisms (for every media format on every Facebook platform) that automatically remove all ads from content labeled as misinformation or hate.” Automatically removing misinformation? Who decides? This campaign is essentially advocating that Facebook become the arbiters of truth.
Although the campaign also makes positive recommendations, such as implementing a separate review funnel for moderating hate speech in cooperation with the protected groups, calling for Facebook to “automatically remove” ads that have “misinformation” is dangerous. As an advertiser for clients, I’ve found that Facebook’s platform is glitchy, inconsistent, and has all kinds of nonsensical rules about not making people “feel bad” with the ads they approve.
This should not be the role of Facebook. If it doesn’t concern a direct call to violence or have a proven and obvious path to violence, such as in the case of white supremacists and some antisemitic content, Facebook should not be removing it – ads or organic posts.
The ADL claims that this tactic of urging corporate responsibility will show Facebook that if they don’t address and remove hate speech, antisemitism, and other forms of racism on its platform, they will pay the price, literally. The concept itself is noble, but the implementation opens up a Pandora’s Box for suppression of free speech due to poorly defined standards of “hate speech” and “misinformation.”
Meanwhile, brands are capitalizing on the campaign without actually having to do anything, especially if they are still operating on Facebook’s audience network or with international affiliates that are advertising.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative.