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Could a boycott kill Facebook?

BBC Technology 29 Jun 2020 08:36
By James Clayton North America technology reporter
FacebooklogoImage copyright Reuters

Boycotts can be extremely effective - as Facebook is finding out.

In the late 18th century, the abolitionist movement encouraged British people to stay away from goods produced by slaves. It worked. Around 300,000 stopped buying sugar - increasing the pressure to abolish slavery.

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign is the latest movement to use boycott as a political tool. It claims that Facebook doesn't do enough to remove racist and hateful content from its platform.

It's convinced a series of major companies to pull advertising from Facebook and some other social media companies.

Among the latest to do so are Ford, Adidas and HP. They join earlier participants including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Starbucks.

News site Axios has also reported that Microsoft suspended advertising on Facebook and Instagram in May because of concerns about unspecified "inappropriate content" - a development the BBC can confirm.

Loss of trust

David Cumming from Aviva Investors told the BBC's Today programme that the loss of trust, and a perceived absence of a moral code, could "destroy the business".

But whether this could be bigger - an existential threat to Facebook's long-term future - is far less clear.

First of all, this isn't the first boycott of a social media company.

That particular boycott is now almost totally forgotten. YouTube tweaked its ad policies, and three years on YouTube's parent company Google is doing just fine.

Lots of low spenders

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, much of Facebook's advertising revenue comes from thousands and thousands of small- to medium-sized businesses.

So far, the vast majority of medium-sized companies have not signed up.

Mat Morrison, head of strategy at advertising agency Digital Whiskey, told me there's a huge number of smaller businesses that "can't afford not to advertise".

"The only way our business works is having access to these highly targeted audiences, that aren't mass media audiences, so we'll continue to advertise" Morrison says.

You only need to change the mind of one man.

But the reverse is also true. Shareholders aren't able to put pressure on Mr Zuckerberg in the same way as other companies. If he doesn't want to act, he won't.

These changes won't be enough to make Stop Hate for Profit go away though.

This Monday, Reddit has banned The_Donald forum as part of a wider crackdown on "subreddits" whose members have engaged in harassment and threatening behaviour. The community was not officially linked to the President, but had helped widely spread memes that supported him, before Reddit took earlier steps to limit the posts' reach.

The Amazon-owned video-streaming site said two videos of Mr Trump's rallies that were shown on its platform had broken its rules on hateful conduct.

One dated from 2015, before he was elected, at which he had said Mexico was sending rapists to the US. The other was from earlier this month, in which the President had described a fictional "tough hombre" breaking into the home of an American woman.

This year is going to be a rocky year for all social media companies.

If the boycott drags on into the autumn - and if more and more companies sign up - this could be a defining year for the social network.

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FacebookDavid CummingAviva Investors
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