'Disappointing' Zuckerberg meeting fails to yield results, say Facebook boycott organizers

Kari Paul in San Francisco
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP</span>
Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

The organizers behind a major advertiser boycott of Facebook have called a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg and other executives “disappointing”, saying the company failed to commit to concrete solutions for addressing hate speech and misinformation on the platform.

Officials at Facebook, including Zuckerberg, the CEO, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, met with members of the coalition of civil rights groups over video chat for an hour on Tuesday to discuss the largest boycott in Facebook history, which has gained the support of more than 1,000 of its advertisers, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks.

Facebook showed up to this meeting expecting a grade A for attendance

Rashad Robinson

But the company offered little in terms of concrete solutions, said Rashad Robinson of the Color of Change, one of the groups calling on advertisers to suspend spending as part of the campaign, known as Stop Hate for Profit.

“Facebook showed up to this meeting expecting a grade A for attendance,” he said. “Attendance alone is not enough. At this point we were expecting some very clear answers to the recommendations we put on the table, and we did not get that. We did not get to the heart of these problems.”

Those recommendations include putting someone with civil rights expertise in the C suite at Facebook, submitting to regular third-party audits of hate and misinformation, and removing the political exemptions that allow some public figures to bypass hate speech rules on the platform. The opposition to political exemptions has intensified in recent weeks after Donald Trump appeared to call for shooting protesters, a post flagged as inappropriate on Twitter but left up without action on Facebook.

The campaign also demands Facebook find and remove public and private groups focused on white supremacy, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism.

In a previous interview with the Guardian, Robinson said the campaign had reached a critical mass that Facebook could no longer ignore. “What we have done differently this time is to go directly to big advertisers who also have not been able to get changes from the platform,” he said, “advertisers who see their ads on Facebook showing up next to white supremacist and white nationalist content and who have watched as Mark Zuckerberg has seen himself as too powerful to have to listen.”

Related: 'It's hitting their pockets': a lead organizer on the biggest corporate boycott in Facebook's history

Facebook declined to commit to any specific policies or timelines and declined to commit to any of the 11 measures put forward by the coalition, the groups said in a press conference following the meeting.

The only measure executives reportedly addressed was that they might consider hiring for a civil rights position at the company, but they were unable to commit to putting that employee at a high level or in the C-suite.

“‘Almost’ isn’t good enough when we are talking about fighting hate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, which is part of the coalition. “Facebook should have a zero-tolerance policy on intolerance like every other company in America.”

Facebook is “grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement”, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday, citing a civil rights audit the company is releasing on Wednesday as a gesture of its move towards more transparency. She also noted the company had banned more than 250 white supremacist organizations and created new policies to prohibit voter and census interference.

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform,” she said. “They want Facebook to be free of hate speech and so do we. That’s why it’s so important that we work to get this right.”

Facebook claims it removes 89% of hate content on its own before anyone reports it, but the groups behind the boycott say those numbers are difficult to understand without context. Stop Hate for Profit demands the company submit to third-party audits because “a transparency report is only as good as its author is independent”, according to its site. Activists also say any amount of hate speech is too much.

“Starbucks can’t say 89% of its coffee doesn’t have poison in it, Ford Motor Company cannot say 89% of its fleet has seatbelts that work and still sell them – most companies recall a product that is not at 99.9%,” Greenblatt said. “Maybe it’s time that we recall Facebook groups, maybe it’s time that we recall the newsfeed, maybe it’s time they get involved and take decisive, deliberate action to stamp out hate. They could do it today.”

Zuckerberg has reportedly expressed that he believes the advertisers will soon be back regardless of what changes Facebook makes. Facebook reportedly gets the majority of its advertising from small businesses, and major companies make up only 20% of its revenue. But organizers say the boycott, which will last at least through the month of July, is poised to extend into Europe.

“The fact of the matter is that this campaign will continue to grow, it will get more global, it will get more intense, until we get the answers we are looking for,” Greenblatt said.