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Unfriended: Is #StopHateForProfit a tipping point for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg?

Some of the internet’s biggest advertisers have started to pull their ads from the site.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company VP for Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company VP for Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg.
Image: Niall Carson

IN 2010′s THE Social Network about the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s character resists putting ads on the fledgling website, declaring: “Facebook is cool, and that’s a priceless asset I’m not giving up.”

In the 10 years since that film was released, any pretensions to valuing style over money have long since evaporated. The website now has a staggering 2.6 billion monthly users across the world and, along with Google, dominates the market in online advertising spend. 

It’s also lost the cool factor that Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg spoke so highly of.

Facebook’s ubiquity has meant it’s no longer the place to be seen and the rapid growth of fake news and hate speech on the platform have turned a once positive environment into one many now view as toxic. 

Criticising Facebook is nothing new in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal but it’s recently become a crescendo. What’s changed is the ever-growing polarisation of US society, the worsening public discourse and the belief that Facebook is a driver of both. 

A fortnight ago MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough had a viral seven-minute tirade in which he accused Zuckerberg and his website of pushing people towards extremist sites. The clip is a bit jarring for Irish viewers more accustomed to impartial TV anchors, but it demonstrates the extent to which trashing Facebook has become mainstream. 

In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has forced companies and individuals into a reckoning with past behaviours, with the facilitation of racism among the issues that companies are grappling with.

The #StopHateForProfit campaign has grown up around this and exploded in the past week, leading to some of the biggest advertisers in the world have pulling their ads from social media.

Consumer giant Unilever, home to dozens of brands including Ben and Jerry’s, Dove soap, Magnum ice cream and Knorr, announced last week it was to stop advertising on Facebook in the US.

It said this would continue until the end of 2020 due to the “polarised election period” in the country. Other huge brands have done similar, with US telecoms Verizon even challenging Facebook to do more.

“We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable,” Verizon’s chief media officer John Nitti said bluntly.

In the last couple of days Coca-Cola and Starbucks have also announced they will stop advertising on social media. Two iconic brands that probably outshine even Facebook in their impact on US consumer society.

There is an argument that there’s a bit of bandwagoning going on here and other factors at play too. Tech writer Benedict Evans argues in his latest newsletter that it suits big companies to leave Facebook for a number of reasons right now.

“A cynic would say they’re all slashing their ad budgets anyway and this is a convenient excuse and some free purpose-washing,” he explains.

A financial analyst would also point out that something like three quarters of Facebook’s advertising is actually from SMEs, and though Unilever is one of the world’s biggest advertisers, it’s a tiny share of Facebook revenue.

But even if the dent to revenue is comparatively small, the reputational damage is huge and it hits the company in the share price.

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On Friday, shares in Facebook fell by 8.3% following the Unilever news, wiping $56 billion from the company’s market value and making Zuckerberg himself $7.2 billion poorer

Zuckerberg announced some big changes last Friday, promising to ban a “wider category of hateful conduct” and to add labels to posts that are “newsworthy” but violate platform rules.

“We’re also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers” from hateful ads, Zuckerberg continued.

Facebook had also previously resisted fact-checking political ads, saying they belong in a different category, but it is now bowing to the pressure of the market.

The market, of course, meaning money.

This article was featured in Morning Memo, TheJournal.ie’s daily business and economics newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter in the box below.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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