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Facebook faces ad boycott blues



Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Tech writer Danielle Abril here filling in for Adam.

Over the past several days, at least 10 companies, including REI, Patagonia, and Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s, have said they would stop buying ads on Facebook during July in protest of what they say is Facebook’s failure to eliminate hate and violence on its service.

“The key is economic pressure from companies and consumers,” Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, one of the boycott organizers, told me on Wednesday. “You have to hit them in the pocketbook, period.”

Part of what #StopHateForProfit wants is for Facebook to deploy a dedicated team to handle complaints from users who say they’ve been targeted for their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sex. The process would allow experts in the field of identity-based hate to evaluate the posts and make better and quicker decisions about how to handle the posts.

The campaign also wants Facebook to automatically remove all ads that promote hate or misinformation, areas the company has historically poorly policed. And it’s calling Facebook to increase safety in private groups by adding moderators to groups with more than 150 members.

In the past, Facebook has struggled with policing its service. Even 16 years after its founding, the company still hasn’t figured out how to effectively use automated techniques to quickly or proactively remove harmful content. 

During the first quarter, Facebook was only able to remove 16% of the 2.3 million posts that violated its policy against bullying and harassment before being told about them. The company has blamed the low numbers on the difficulty finding banned content without users pointing it out.

Much of bullying and harassment is determined by the context or what was previously said or known versus by the language in the post itself, making it hard for automated systems to identify it. 

But even with more blatant offenses, Facebook has decided against taking action—using freedom of speech as a defense. In the case of posts by President Trump threatening violence, for example, Facebook has done nothing. Trump recently wrote that he would use “serious force” against anyone who tried to set up an autonomous zone for protesters in Washington, D.C.  Facebook responded to complaints by saying that Trump’s posts didn’t violate its policies

Some analysts say that if Facebook took action, like Twitter has, it could show advertisers and users that it’s committed to improving. But advocacy groups say that’s not enough. They want long-lasting change in regards to hate and misinformation.

“That’s a much harder problem to solve,” said Mark Shmulik, analyst at brokerage firm AB Bernstein. “I don’t know what the silver bullet is to fix it.”

In the end, analysts say the Facebook ad boycott is unlikely to have a major impact on Facebook’s revenue. But Steyer told me that the advocacy groups don’t plan to back down after the one-month boycott is over. “There’s more coming,” Steyer said. “It’s too important for our democracy.”

Danielle Abril


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