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How advertiser boycott could yield ‘watershed moment’ for Facebook

Facebook is under increasing pressure to regulate and remove extremist and hateful content from its platform. Several major corporations have pledged to stop buying ads on the social media site during July unless the company acts. With advertising comprising 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue, its share value has already dropped. But will the boycott effect major change? Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Facebook.

    The social media company is facing new pressure to change how it handles content on its platform.

    Stephanie Sy reports that major corporations have pledged to temporarily stop buying ads on the social media site for the month of July.

    With advertising making up 98 percent of Facebook's revenue, the company has seen its share value tumble in recent days.

    But it is not clear if that will lead to a change in policy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While protesters were turning out in droves on streets across the United States to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd, a different movement was spreading on Facebook.

  • Woman:

    Hello, Facebook family.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One where a video by a right-wing activist saying racially motivated police brutality is not a real thing was racking up 92 million views, and one where like-minded extremists found each other before allegedly killing a Federal Protective Service officer in Oakland, California.

    It's a flood of incidents like this that have sparked a coordinated effort to pressure Facebook to change what it allows on its platform.

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    What we hope to do is to expose the fact that extremists, again, have exploited the platform, and they simply haven't done enough to combat conspiracy theories, disinformation, racism, anti-Semitism, et cetera.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jonathan Greenblatt is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. It is one of the groups behind Stop Hate For Profit, a campaign calling for companies to pull advertising dollars from Facebook.

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    So, if Facebook hasn't listened to civil rights activists and hasn't listened to consumer advocates and hasn't listened to government regulators, we thought maybe they indeed would listen to their corporate advertisers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Hundreds of those advertisers have answered the call for an ad boycott, including big multinationals, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Unilever.

    Among other things, the campaign is demanding that Facebook remove more hateful content from its platform, rein in the promotion of that content, and refund companies whose ads appear alongside it.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    I think this is like a watershed moment for social media.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin covers Facebook for The Washington Post.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    You know, for years, they have effectively been in this kind of free speech camp, where almost anything goes. And, yes, they have policies and rules against hate speech, but, in particular, for politicians and the most powerful people with the most powerful megaphones, they haven't enforced them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, when President Trump posted, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," in the midst of the George Floyd protests, Facebook was criticized for not removing the post, in contrast to Twitter, which concealed the post with a warning that it violated its rules against glorifying violence.

    Hundreds of Facebook's own employees criticized the company for its inaction and staged a virtual walkout.

  • Steven Levy:

    I think what's happened is that the criticism of Facebook, which has been super intense the past three years, ever since the election, has merged with a more general feeling of a need for action in the country at large.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Steven Levy is an editor at large for "Wired" and author of the book "Facebook: The Inside Story".

  • Steven Levy:

    People now feel that they have power to make changes, that changes must happen. And that's bled over to Facebook.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Facebook says it removed nearly 10 million pieces of content containing hate speech between January and March of this year.

    And, under pressure, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a policy reversal last Friday.

  • Mark Zuckerberg:

    If we determine the content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we're going to take that content down, no matter who says it.

  • Elizabeth Dwoskin:

    For them, that was a big concession. But for the world, it's — that's not going to change very much in terms of what people see.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Facebook will continue to carve out exceptions for politicians on other content they deem newsworthy, even if it violates their policies. But now they plan to label it. To some, the changes fall short.

  • Steven Levy:

    The question is, will Facebook change the fundamental aspects of a system which promotes or amplifies, let's say, the sensational content, the divisive content that people respond to more than just ordinary posts? That really is the root of the problem.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And the way the News Feed algorithm generally works is, you get more and more of what Facebook thinks you want, whether it's cats or conspiracies.

  • Steven Levy:

    Facebook really is, you know, suffering the consequences of its own decisions, Zuckerberg's own decisions, really, that it's made over the past dozen years to make the platform what it is now. And it really can't change it without making some fundamental changes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But those fundamental changes could affect Facebook's bottom line, and advertisers have grown to depend on the company that helps them reach more than 2.5 billion users.

  • Steven Levy:

    This isn't quite yet and as existential crisis for Facebook.

    The advertisers who have left aren't a giant percentage of Facebook's revenues. And they are influential and important, but a lot of them are going to come back, because Facebook is such an effective advertising tool for them. I think the serious problem for Facebook is its own employees. Zuckerberg has to placate them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    To retain his team and remain the dominant social media company, Zuckerberg is enacting incremental change. But living up to his spoken commitment to make Facebook a force for good may take more than that.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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