Advertisers battle for power over Facebook as boycotts mount

It is the same understanding that has made Facebook central to political campaigns. President Donald Trump and his alleged Democratic challenger Joe Biden have spent more than $ 65 million combined on Facebook ads in the past two years, despite offering strong criticism of the company.

Now, some corporate advertisers pledge to forgo Facebook’s captive audience, for at least a few weeks or months, as they face their own pressures to respond to increased attention to racial injustice and electoral disinformation in the U.S. .

Still, corporate brands that have announced boycotts on Facebook are a portion of Facebook’s $ 70 billion annual ad revenue, meaning even the biggest advertisers will have trouble setting the terms. And Facebook’s massive bottom line gives you ample cushion to sustain a financial hit.

“I have not seen a single example of an advertiser boycott having a material impact on the Internet,” said Mark Mahaney, who tracks Facebook and other Internet companies at RBC Capital Markets. Perhaps a boycott could be supported enough, Mahaney said, but he called that unlikely, even with Verizon and Unilever joining the campaign. “My intuition is that Facebook’s policy of having as little content restraint as possible, that policy is not controversial enough to cause a widespread advertising boycott.”

Matt Rivitz, whose advocacy group Sleeping Giants helped organize the Stop Hate for Profit boycott along with Color of Change, NAACP and others, acknowledged that advertisers are in a difficult situation.

“There is a shortage of options for advertising now,” he said. “There are a few monopolies and it’s really hard to get around them.. “

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced certain changes to the way the company will tag posts that violate its policies on Friday. “Facebook means giving people a voice, and that especially means people who previously have not had as much voice or as much power to share their own experiences,” he said.

But those were in progress before the boycott and did little to calm the organizers.

“What we have seen in today’s Mark Zuckerberg address is a failure to fight the damage [Facebook] It has caused our democracy and civil rights, “Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, tweeted.” If this is the response you are giving to top advertisers who withdraw millions of dollars from the company, we cannot trust their leadership. “

“Our fight for justice on Facebook is far from over,” said Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press.

Trump and Biden are also not giving up on Facebook, despite being unlucky that the company changes its policies. Trump continues to beat Facebook and other social media sites for alleged bias against him, and last month he issued an executive order to stop them. Biden, meanwhile, has been pushing a petition asking Facebook to verify political ads, something the company has so far refused to do.

Even if Facebook can handle the financial risk of the boycott and the political heat, its reputation with advertisers and users is at stake. The changes Zuckerberg unveiled on Friday are part of an ongoing effort to reduce divisive discourse and stop voter crackdown that critics say has not gone far enough. The company has said it removes almost 90 percent of hate speech before users flag it.

Some organizers took Zuckerberg’s announcement, albeit modest, as a sign of their collective power. “It’s weird what happens when brands start demanding more responsibility,” Sleeping Giants tweeted in response to the news.

“There is a pressure point here,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has testified before Congress about misinformation. “That may not last forever, but look, if you can hold 10 to 20 percent of your income for a couple of months, I think it would get someone’s attention.”

Some of the funds the companies are holding are sizable, if not bankrupt for Facebook. Unilever spent $ 42.3 million on Facebook ads in the US in 2019, and Coca-Cola spent $ 22.1 million, according to digital marketing researcher Pathmatics.

And the company has spent the past few days contacting advertisers to allay its anger. Neil Potts, Facebook’s head of trust and security policy, acknowledged to advertisers this week that the company has a “confidence deficit,” according to the Financial Times. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have communicated directly with the companies.

But Facebook also maintains that it will not be affected by customer pressure. “We are not making any policy changes related to revenue pressure,” Carolyn Everson, vice president of Facebook’s Global Business Group, told advertisers last weekend in an email, according to the Journal report. “We establish our policies based on principles rather than commercial interests.”

Everson said in a statement “we deeply respect the decision of any brand” and we will continue to eliminate hate speech and electoral disinformation.

Presidential campaigns are also clinging to leverage. Despite their criticism, they both continue to stack money with Facebook. Trump has spent $ 45 million and Biden $ 23.4 million in his individual campaign alone Accounts since May 2018, according to the Facebook Ad Library. Those numbers will only increase as the November elections approach.

Last week, Biden’s campaign found itself buying Facebook ads that criticize Facebook.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is pushing supporters to its official app and rival social media platforms, particularly an upstart named Parler who has few restraint policies. But it has not given any indication that it is removing the ads on the most popular social networks.

Political advertising is a growing portion of Facebook’s revenue as more campaign ads change online, but campaigns also have limited bargaining power. Politicians have few other options to reach Facebook’s critical audience, particularly with alternatives like Google and Twitter that either impose some restrictions on political advertisers or ban them entirely.

No campaign commented on this story, but their behavior reflects the fact that there are few places advertisers can reach so many Americans, let alone target them in granular terms based on location, demographics, and interests. Facebook has around 175 million users in the U.S., according to research firm eMarketer. That appeal is hard to resist if you’re selling coats or soliciting votes.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proclaimed this week that he joined Parler, although he has no plans to leave Facebook, Twitter or other large-scale platforms, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said advertisers “have the power to deter platforms from amplifying dangerous and even deadly disinformation” at an event last week. According to records, she has spent more than $ 2 million on advertising on the platform since May 2018.

The greatest power to influence Facebook’s policies still seems to lie in global capitals, including Washington, where regulators and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle now question the business models that have allowed Internet companies to grow so much with relatively few. controls.

Facebook’s dominance in the social media market has drawn research from state and federal antitrust authorities, some of which suggest that too much control over online discourse is a symptom of poor market competition. And an increasing number of lawmakers are proposing legislation to change the way social media companies govern online discourse.

“There is pressure and public defense that is happening here, which is important, but it is not going to solve the underlying problem. That will be solved by regulators,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a digital media business group whose Members include Disney, Condé Nast, and The New York Times.

Kint has been a fierce critic of the market power that Facebook and Google have accumulated, and said that advertiser complaints offer evidence to antitrust authorities that their size represents real harm. Kint is not directly involved in the boycott, but has been a fervent online supporter, tagging companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Under Armor on Twitter to urge them to participate.

Trump has tried to exercise executive power against social media companies, Last month, he signed an executive order designed to punish social media giants for allegedly silencing conservatives, although it has already been challenged in court.

As part of the order, Trump began lobbying to restrict advertising by federal agencies on social media sites deemed politically biased. But he has rejected liberals who try the same pressure tactic, and with far more dollars at stake. He recently told The Daily Caller that he does not support the industry boycott.

“That has to be illegal in some way,” said the president. “How can you allow this to happen? This is really a takeover of the entire system. “