The political controversy that's embroiled Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) in recent weeks isn't going away. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.
It's been weeks since Facebook employees began protesting the company's permissive policy on speech, allowing what they saw as hate speech, threats of violence, and even voter-suppression tactics, at times from the Trump campaign, on the Facebook site. Facebook engineers and others staged a "virtual walkout," and some even resigned, posting sharp criticism of Zuckerberg and his policies as they left.
With the country in the throes of an intense and unique political moment, in the middle of a pandemic and an election season, and after weeks of protests about racial injustice, the tension around Facebook hasn't abated. Now advertisers are getting in on the act.
Stop hate for profit
A coalition of non-profit groups, including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and Sleeping Giants, have formed an organization called Stop Hate For Profit with a simple message. On its website, the group says, "We are asking all businesses to stand in solidarity with our most deeply held American values of freedom, equality and justice and not advertise on Facebook's services in July."
The site goes on to accuse Facebook of allowing violence to be incited against Black Lives Matter protesters and elevating news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller that have worked with white nationalists.
The campaign was launched on June 17 and already seems to be attracting some big names. The North Face, the outdoor outfitter owned by VF Corp (NYSE:VFC), became the biggest brand to join the boycott when it posted a simple message on Twitter on Friday.
North Face said while it would stop advertising on Facebook, it had no plans to pull advertising from Instagram, which Facebook also owns.
Digital ad agency 360i, a division of Dentsu Group, said Thursday that it would encourage clients to support the boycott, saying in an email to them that the company "believes any social platform that earns profits by amplifying the voices of their community must have a zero tolerance policy for hate," according to the Wall Street Journal.
360i's clients include McCormick, Discover Financial Services, and Unilever, though it's unclear if they will support the boycott. Several other ad companies have taken similar stances, and smaller companies have pulled advertising off of Facebook. Nike and Anheuser-Busch, two advertising giants, slashed their daily spending on Facebook and Instagram by $100,000 in early June.
The backlash is reminiscent of the movement against Fox News, which has called on advertisers to boycott the network over political misinformation, hate speech, and similar issues. Such campaigns have been successful, as Disney, Papa John's, and T-Mobile are among other several big brands that have recently taken down advertising from Tucker Carlson Tonight, though Carlson has maintained his strong viewership.
A similar uproar took place against Uber in 2017 after the company appeared to be aiding the breaking of a taxi strike at JFK airport during protests that followed President's Trump Muslim travel ban. The resulting #DeleteUber campaign led to rival Lyft grabbing a significant chunk of market share, which Uber never got back.
What it means for Facebook?
Facebook isn't necessarily in the same position as Uber or Fox News. The company has a diverse range of millions of advertisers, including millions of small businesses, many of whom probably need Facebook more than the social network needs them.
But the backlash shouldn't be ignored. Momentum is clearly building against the social media giant at a time when so many brands are eager to express their support of Black Lives Matter and commit to overcoming racial injustice. It's a level of corporate wokeness, which now includes observing the Juneteenth holiday, that we haven't seen before. Meanwhile, the intensity around the election is only going to increase as November approaches.
Zuckerberg has stood firm on Facebook's speech policy before, but this time there may a real financial penalty for it. There's a tectonic shift happening around social awareness in corporate America, and right now Facebook looks like it's on the losing side. It may be in the company's best interest to change with the times.