Facebook ad boycott: Why big brands 'hit pause on hate'

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign will continue after July.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
9 min read

Major brands say they won't spend money on Facebook ads in July.

Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook has long been criticized for not doing enough to combat hate speech. Now the outrage against the world's largest social network is growing into a movement that threatens its bottom line.

That's because Facebook's latest critics are some of its biggest customers. On June 17, a group of civil rights organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color of Change called on businesses to "hit pause on hate" and not advertise on Facebook in July. The social network makes nearly all of its money from ads, raking in more than $70 billion in revenue last year. 

Organizers of the campaign said Thursday, on the day Facebook reported its second-quarter earnings, that it will continue the movement beyond July. They plan to take more action in the coming months, and organizers see the campaign growing in Europe and in other places. Some advertisers have decided they want to continue pausing spending past July until Facebook takes more aggressive action against hate speech. 

"This movement will not go away until Facebook makes the reasonable changes that society wants. The ad pause in July was not a full campaign – it was a warning shot across Facebook's bow. This movement only will get bigger and broader until Facebook takes the common-sense steps necessary to mitigate the damage it causes," the Stop Hate for Profit campaign said in a statement on Thursday.

The campaign picked up steam with a variety of major brands, including outdoor clothing brand The North Face, consumer goods giant Unilever and telecom leader Verizon. Sony Interactive Entertainment, Clorox, Adidas, Ford, Denny's, Volkswagen and Microsoft (as well as PlayStation) later announced they've joined the boycott too.

"This definitely seems more widespread," said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer's principal analyst. "I don't think I've ever seen this level of marketer action around Facebook."

On Wednesday, during a lengthy congressional antitrust hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked if the company is so big that it doesn't care about the ad boycott. The company is scheduled to report its second-quarter earnings on Thursday. 

"Of course we care, but we're also not going to set our content policies because of advertisers," Zuckerberg said. 

Facebook executives met with the organizers of the campaign in early July but civil rights advocates said they were disappointed because the social network didn't provide clear answers to their recommendations. 

Here's what you need to know about the ad boycott:

Why is this campaign happening now?

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said his organization and other civil rights advocates have been pushing Facebook to do more to make the platform safer for many years. Still, the company hasn't been acting quickly enough, he said. 

Hate speech on Facebook helped fuel a genocide in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In 2019, a gunman used the social network to livestream the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"To be frank, we've not yet seen enough meaningful change," Greenblatt said.

The lack of progress became even more apparent to civil rights activists in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis whose death sparked nationwide protests about police brutality and racial justice. Conspiracy theories and misinformation about Floyd's death spread on social networks, including false claims that Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros orchestrated the protests. Some of this misinformation popped up in private Facebook groups that are harder to moderate.

Facebook has also included Breitbart News, a far-right site, as a "trusted" source in its news service, and right-wing news and opinion site The Daily Caller is one of the company's fact-checking partners. Facebook has been used to incite violence against protesters and to suppress voting. 

Unlike Twitter, Facebook has a mostly hands-off approach to speech from politicians. The company faced criticism for not removing a protest-related post by President Donald Trump that advocacy groups and even the company's own employees said could incite violence. Facebook left the post up because it determined that Trump's remarks "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" didn't violate its rules. Facebook's rival Twitter has been labeling Trump's tweets, including false claims he made about mail-in ballots.

Greenblatt characterized the campaign as a "30-day pause on advertising" rather than a boycott. Civil rights groups want to work with Facebook to help the company address these longstanding problems, he said, but the point of the campaign is to show that it's not only a stakeholder concern but a "shareholder imperative."

After July, the campaign isn't calling on advertisers to halt their ad spending on the platform but some are doing so anyways. It's one action, though, organizers are considering in the future. 

"The goal is for [Facebook] to take measurable action and we know change doesn't happen overnight," Greenblatt said. 

What do civil rights groups want Facebook to do?

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign outlines 10 steps it wants Facebook to take to better address hate speech on its platform.

The recommendations include:

  • Hiring a C-suite-level executive with a civil rights background who will review the company's products and rules for discrimination, bias and hate.
  • Participating in a regular audit by an independent third-party about identity-based misinformation and hate. The results would be published online.
  • Notifying businesses if their ads are shown next to content Facebook pulled down that violated its rules and give them a refund.
  • Finding and removing Facebook groups about white supremacy, militias, anti-Semitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denial, vaccine misinformation and climate change denial. 
  • Adopting policy changes to help combat hateful content.
  • Stop recommending or amplifying groups or content with ties to hate, misinformation or conspiracies to users.
  • Creating a way to automatically flag hateful content in private groups for human review.
  • Stop exempting politicians from fact checking, removing misinformation about voting and prohibiting calls to violence from politicians. (Facebook says that it will remove content that suppresses voting and incites violence including from politicians, but critics have disagreed with how the company interprets its rules.)
  • Creating expert teams to review identity-based hateful content and harassment. 
  • Allowing people facing severe hate or harassment to talk to a Facebook employee.

Which companies have joined the campaign?

While some brands might be wary about speaking out against Facebook, others are using the boycott to highlight their values and stance on racial justice.

More than 1,000 businesses and organizations had announced they are pausing advertising on Facebook, according to advocacy group Sleeping Giants, one of the campaign's organizers. 

Participants include well-known brands such as Acura, Adidas, Ben & Jerry's, Best Buy, Blue Bottle Coffee, Blue Shield of California, Body Shop, Campbell Soup, Chobani, Clif Bar, Clorox, Coca-Cola, Conagra, Consumer Reports, CVS, Denny's, Dockers, Dunkin' Donuts, Eddie Bauer, Eileen Fisher, Ford, Fossil, Hershey, Honda, HP, Intercontinental Hotels, J.M. Smucker, JanSport, Kay Jewelers, Kind Snacks, Lego, Levi's, Lululemon, Magnolia Pictures, Mars, Merck, Merrell, Microsoft, Molson Coors, Mozilla, North Face, Patagonia, Pepsi, Pete's Coffee, Pfizer, Puma, Reebok, REI, Samuel Adams, SAP, Schwinn, Sesame Workshop, Siemens, Six Flags, SodaStream, Starbucks, Target, Truly, Unilever, Vans, Verizon, Volkswagen, White Castle and Zales.

Sony Interactive Entertainment also added its name to the list, saying it will pull ads from Facebook and Instagram until the end of July in support of the boycott. "We stand for working (and playing) together for good," a company spokesman said.

How has Facebook responded?

Facebook says it doesn't allow hate speech on its platform, but acknowledged it could do more to tackle this problem.

The company removed nearly 10 million posts for violating its rules against hate speech in the first three months of this year, and most were taken down before users reported them. The social network relies on a mix of human reviewers and technology to moderate content, but detecting hate speech can be challenging because machines have to understand the cultural context of words. 

"Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram because they have good experiences -- they don't want to see hateful content, our advertisers don't want to see it, and we don't want to see it. There is no incentive for us to do anything but remove it," said Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg in a statement on July 1. 

Zuckerberg said in late June that the company will start labeling newsworthy content it leaves up even though it violates the company's rules and would bar more hateful content in ads. The labeling wouldn't apply to content that suppresses voting or incites violence, which Facebook would pull down even if the remarks come from politicians. 

Organizers for the Stop Hate for Profit campaign called the changes "small." 

Since the boycott, Facebook has released a civil rights audit, announced it was studying potential racial bias in its algorithms and pledged to hire a civil rights leader. 

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a July post that the company is "making changes - not for financial reasons or advertiser pressure, but because it is the right thing to do."

Will you start seeing different ads due to the boycott?

You probably won't notice a big change unless you're a customer of the brands that have paused advertising. Facebook shows users different ads based on data such as the pages you and your friends like and what businesses you check into. When you share your email or phone number with a business, the company might add you to a customer list that can be matched with your Facebook profile too. Facebook also has 8 million advertisers so there are plenty of other ads it can show its users.

Why is Facebook the target? What about other social networks?

Facebook isn't the only social network that has been criticized for not doing enough to combat hate speech. Twitter, Google-owned YouTube and Reddit have been under fire too for the same problem.

The focus of the campaign has been on Facebook because the company is the world's largest social network, with 2.7 billion monthly active users. Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Twitter has been criticized for not banning white supremacists from the platform, a move Facebook announced in March 2019. But it also started labeling tweets, including those from Trump, that could incite violence, include misinformation or contain "manipulated media." Facebook works with third-party fact-checkers and will place a notice over content with misinformation. But the social network doesn't send posts and ads from politicians to fact-checkers because it says that speech is already heavily scrutinized.

Reddit also recently banned a popular pro-Trump forum and announced changes to its hate speech policies. YouTube said it banned several white supremacist channels.

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign is already impacting other social media sites. Some businesses, such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, say they're pausing advertising not only on Facebook but on other social networks too, such as Twitter. Mars Inc., which manufactures candies such as Snickers and M&Ms, as well as other food, said it would pause advertising on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat starting in July. 

Do ad boycotts work?

It depends on how you measure the success of these campaigns. Greenblatt said the main goal is for Facebook to make changes that would make the social network safer. 

Analysts and marketing experts say that the ad boycott will likely do more harm to Facebook's already tarnished image than to its finances. The social network has faced a number of scandals around privacy and election interference, but it's been trying to rehabilitate its image especially during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said media coverage of boycotts can threaten a company's reputation.

"Your ability to make employees and other stakeholders happy is linked to your reputation," he said. 

King, who studied 133 boycotts from 1990 to 2005, found that the stock price of a targeted company dropped by nearly 1% for each day it got national media coverage. About 25% of boycotts that get some national media attention lead to concessions from the targeted company.

It's unclear how much revenue Facebook will lose from the ad boycott. CNET contacted several businesses that joined the campaign, but they wouldn't share how much they spend on Facebook ads every month. 

The boycott, though, is already impacting Facebook's investors. In late June, Facebook shares dropped more than 8% in the wake of more brands like Unilever joining the boycott. The decline wiped out $56 billion from Facebook's market value, Bloomberg reported. On Thursday, Facebook said that revenue in the first three weeks of July was up by 10% compared to the same period last year. 

Boycotting Facebook for more than a month is easier said than done. Facebook gathers a trove of data about its users, and that allows advertisers to target potential customers based on their age, location and other characteristics. This makes the social network a valuable tool for businesses.

Some advertisers also boycotted Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, but that didn't stop the social network from growing its sales and users. 

"Facebook is safe for now," said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Outrage is hard to keep going because you need to keep feeding it."

Watch this: Tech giants pledge funds to fight racial injustice, Facebook employees stage protest