Facebook Tightens Controls on Speech as Ad Boycott Grows

Facebook Tightens Controls on Speech as Ad Boycott Grows

Unilever to halt ads on Facebook, Twitter for remainder of year

Unilever is suspending U.S. ads on Facebook and Twitter, citing hate speech and divisive content.

By Suzanne Vranica and Deepa Seetharaman Updated June 26, 2020 8:44 pm ET
Under mounting pressure from advertisers, Facebook Inc. said it would start labeling political speech that violates its rules and take other measures to prevent voter suppression and protect minorities from abuse.
The new policies were announced Friday shortly after The Wall Street Journal reported that consumer-goods giant Unilever PLC is halting U.S. advertising on Facebook and Twitter Inc. for at least the remainder of the year, citing hate speech and divisive content on the platforms.
Unilever’s move marked a significant escalation in advertisers’ efforts to force changes by the tech companies. In a live stream announcing the changes, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg didn’t mention Unilever or the ad boycott, but said he was “optimistic that we can make progress on public health and racial justice while maintaining our democratic traditions around free expression and voting.”
Facebook has said it doesn’t make policy decisions in response to revenue pressure, and a spokesman said the changes were a follow-up to Mr. Zuckerberg’s previous commitment to prepare for coming elections.
Some of the measures described on Friday were clarifications of clarified existing policies, and civil-rights leaders who have been in discussions with the company on these issues said the moves were insufficient.
Facebook shares fell more than 8% on Friday and Twitter shares dropped more than 7%.
Unilever, whose many household brands include Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Lipton tea, joins a growing list of companies that are boycotting Facebook for varying lengths of time, including Verizon Communications Inc., Patagonia Inc., VF Corp., North Face, Eddie Bauer and Recreational Equipment Inc.
“Based on the current polarization and the election that we are having in the U.S., there needs to be much more enforcement in the area of hate speech,” Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice president of global media, said.
“Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society,” Unilever said. The ban also will cover Instagram.
Coca-Cola Co. went further than most advertisers, announcing on Friday that it was pausing its global ad spending on all social-media platforms for at least 30 days—including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Snap Inc.
“There is no place for racism in the world and there is no place for racism on social media,” Coca-Cola Chief Executive James Quincey said in a statement.
The Facebook advertising boycott came after civil-rights groups including the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP called on brands to pull ad spending from Facebook for July. The groups said the social-media giant hadn’t made enough progress battling hate speech and misinformation.
Among the new measures Mr. Zuckerberg announced Friday, the company will label posts that violate its policies but are deemed newsworthy—giving Facebook the option of labeling President Trump’s posts, as Twitter has done recently. Facebook will also put in additional safeguards to prevent voter suppression and shield immigrants from ads that depict them as inferior.
The groups calling for the boycott, called Stop Hate for Profit, described the new policies as “a small number of small changes.”

“We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meager steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now,” a statement said.
The group submitteda list of 10 changes that it would prefer, including providing an audit and a refund to advertisers whose ads are shown next to content that was later removed for violating Facebook’s terms of service.
In a statement to the Journal, Facebook said it invests billions of dollars every year to keep its platform safe and has banned 250 white-supremacist organizations from Facebook and Instagram. It said artificial intelligence helps it find nearly 90% of hate speech before anyone flags it. “We know we have more work to do,” the company said, adding that it would continue to work with Global Alliance for Responsible Media—an ad-industry group created to improve the digital ecosystem, and of which Unilever is a founding member—as well as other experts “to develop even more tools, technology and policies to continue this fight.”
Twitter wasn’t a target of the civil-rights group’s boycott call, but it has also come under scrutiny on Madison Avenue.
“We have developed policies and platform capabilities designed to protect and serve the public conversation, and as always, are committed to amplifying voices from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups,” said Sarah Personette, Twitter’s vice president of Global Client Solutions, in a statement. “We are respectful of our partners’ decisions and will continue to work and communicate closely with them during this time.”
Facebook has taken some steps in recent years to better police its platforms, adding workers and developing new technology. That has resulted in the removal of hate speech and other objectionable content.
“We acknowledge the efforts of our partners, but there is much more to be done, especially in the areas of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarized election period in the U.S.,” Unilever said. “The complexities of the current cultural landscape have placed a renewed responsibility on brands to learn, respond and act to drive a trusted and safe digital ecosystem.”
Mr. Di Como said Unilever would like to see a reduction in the level of hate speech on the platforms and wants independent companies to measure and confirm that progress has been made.
Unilever, which is one of the biggest ad spenders in the world, said it would shift its U.S. ad dollars that have been earmarked for Facebook and Twitter to other media. Unilever spent $42.3 million on Facebook ads in the U.S. last year, research company Pathmatics Inc. estimates. Unilever declined to comment on its ad spending.
The big tech platforms have been under increasing pressure—from politicians, outside groups, and their own users—to crack down harder on misinformation and hate speech. Facebook, in particular, has become a target because of its position that political speech, including comments by President Donald Trump, generally shouldn’t be fact-checked and removed.
Tensions have risen since the widespread U.S. protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd, and the resulting national dialogue about race and police brutality. But many concerns about the platforms have been festering for years. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has long pushed Facebook to view Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech.
Corporations, whose ad spending is the financial foundation for tech giants, have applied pressure as well—sometimes quietly, behind the scenes, sometimes in public. The latest boycott represents a substantial escalation, especially with the addition of bigger players like Unilever and Verizon. Verizon said it was pausing ads until Facebook can create a solution that makes the company comfortable.
American Honda said Friday it will pause advertising on Facebook and Instagram for the month of July.
Motives for joining such boycotts can be all over the map. Some companies see a chance to get positive attention for taking a stand on a social matter. Others are worried about their brand’s association with controversial content—and, if history is a guide, they may return to advertising when the dust settles. Some see an opportunity to strike a blow at the powerful digital platforms.
And for others, ad boycotts are a moral fight that is worth having even if it hurts their business.
For many companies, pulling ads off Facebook is a difficult proposition, because it is such an efficient marketing vehicle and has so much data on consumers to help target ads. Unilever said it isn’t removing Facebook and Twitter ads in non-U.S. markets because the divisive content is currently more pronounced in the U.S.
Unilever has been a leader in demanding that tech giants clean up the digital ad ecosystem. It has pushed them to police advertising fraud and has been outspoken about the lack of transparency in Facebook’s and Google’s metrics that show whether advertising is working.
Unilever also has taken stances on social issues: This week, it said it would discontinue the name “Fair & Lovely” for its international skin-lightening cream, acknowledging it reinforces the racist notion that light skin is better. The product will still be sold. The company has also been working to eliminate stereotypical portrayals of women in its advertising.
Procter & Gamble Co., another consumer products giant that is highly influential on Madison Avenue, said it is reviewing all platforms on which it advertises for objectionable content. Facebook is included in that review, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company’s marketing chief, Marc Pritchard, on Wednesday vowed that the company wouldn’t advertise “on or near content that we determine is hateful, denigrating or discriminatory.”


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