July 13, 2020

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Facebook policy changes fail to quell advertiser revolt as Coca-Cola pulls ads

Facebook has announced changes to its policies around hate speech and voter suppression, but the measures have done little to quell the wave of companies pulling advertising from the platform amid backlash over how the company handles hate speech online.

The CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, on Friday announced tweaks to a number of policies, hours after the multinational Unilever said it would pull its advertisements from the platform for the next six months.

Zuckerberg’s announcements, however, did not halt companies’ demands for change. On Friday afternoon, Coca-Cola, Honda, the chocolate brand Hershey, and the apparel companies Lululemon and Jansport joined the more than 100 brands boycotting advertising on Facebook.

Facebook makes about 98% of its $70bn in annual revenue from advertising, and Unilever’s announcement sent Facebook stocks tumbling 7%.

Unilever’s joining of the boycott put significant pressure on Facebook, said Nicole Perrin, the principal analyst at the market research firm eMarketer. As one of the largest advertisers in the world, its moves could influence other brand advertisers to follow its lead, she said. It also pulled spending for longer than other companies and on more platforms, including Instagram and Twitter.

“That suggests a deeper problem with user-generated content platforms, as divisiveness is to be expected on any such platform that allows political expression,” she said.

The changes announced Friday are the most significant Facebook has made after months of actions from employees and legislators, yet critics argue they are still too incremental.

Facebook said it would take an approach similar to that of Twitter, labeling posts that may violate its policies but are allowed to remain on the platform because they are deemed newsworthy.

The platform will also include a link to its voting information center on any post with information about voting, including politicians: “This is not a judgement of whether the posts themselves are accurate,” Zuckerberg said.

The new policies come as a reversal from Facebook’s previous stances. As recently as last week the company made clear that Facebook does not consider much of the language that Trump uses to suppress voting to be voter suppression, defending Trump’s posts as being “legitimate debate”.

Zuckerberg also said in the video that posts that “may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote” will be removed regardless of who posts them or whether they may be considered newsworthy.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to make progress on these challenges,” Zuckerberg said. “I think we’re going to be able to do that while maintaining our democratic traditions around free expression and voting, and I’m committed to making sure that Facebook is a force for good on this journey.”

The pressure on Facebook to moderate hate speech has accelerated in recent weeks as the platform refused to flag false and incendiary statements from Donald Trump, despite moves from rival platform Twitter to do so. In response, workers staged a walkout and called on the company to do more to address hate speech and incitement to violence.

How much the new policies will change the landscape of Facebook remains to be seen, said representatives of Change the Terms, a coalition of over 55 civil rights groups committed to fighting online hate.

“Today at Facebook, the collective voice of diverse users won against the threats of hateful politicians and white supremacists, but we need more enforcement—not words that remain unfulfilled,” said Jessica J González, the co-founder of Change the Terms and co-CEO of Free Press.

Change the Terms cited the existence of more than 100 white supremacist Facebook accounts that are still active on the platform. Others noted that Donald Trump’s post about shooting looters during civil rights protests remains live on the site.

Zuckerberg also said the company will not be changing its policies that allow lying in paid political advertisements. Rashad Robinson of the Color of Change said the CEO’s statement “was 11 minutes of wasted opportunity to commit to change”.

“Zuckerberg’s new changes don’t go nearly far enough,” Robinson said on Twitter. “Labeling ‘newsworthy’ content so the public can judge for themselves is not a new policy. It’s more of the same, and it won’t cut it.”

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