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A breakthrough in the Facebook advertising boycott came on Wednesday as the company announced CEO Mark Zuckerberg would meet with several groups who organized the effort. A suitable agreement for both sides is far from guaranteed, however, as the organizers push for concrete change.
Last Friday, Zuckerberg announced some well-timed changes to the way Facebook monitors content. They came in the face of the boycott that has seen more than 400 companies—including the likes of Microsoft, Verizon, Starbucks, and several other big names—commit to pausing ad spending for the month of July after Facebook left a post up from President Trump saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In an employee town hall opened to the public, Zuckerberg said the company would ramp up efforts to prevent voter suppression on its platform, particularly tactics targeting race and ethnicity. For example, he said the company would start banning posts falsely claiming immigration officials were checking documentation at voting locations. He added that Facebook would put more effort into flagging false claims about voting in the preceding 72 hours before the U.S. presidential election in November.
The changes had been in development for months and were recommended by a civil rights audit that began in 2018, Zuckerberg said.
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change—one of the civil rights groups spearheading the boycott along with the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—was not impressed. “Zuckerberg’s address was 11 minutes of wasted opportunity to commit to change,” he tweeted that Friday. “I hope companies advertising on Facebook were watching—if they want to put their money where their mouth is on racial justice, then it’s time to #StopHateForProfit,” he added, referencing the boycott’s hashtag.
Zuckerberg’s latest attempt at diplomacy may do little to convince organizers like Robinson otherwise. In the view of his colleague Arisha Hatch, Color of Change’s vice president and chief of campaigns, “the initial response made a very small tweak, but for the most part just reiterated their existing policies that we know have been insufficient for a while,” she told Fortune. “Mark Zuckerberg and [chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg understand that what we really want is a permanent civil right infrastructure.”
A permanent civil right infrastructure would see Facebook appoint a C-suite executive with a background in civil rights to review policies and products for discrimination, bias, and hate. The guidance for this role is outlined on the Stop Hate For Profit website, along with nine other demands. Among them: regularly submit to independent, third-party audits with results published on a publicly accessible website, create an internal feature to flag hateful content in private groups for human review, and enable Facebook users facing harassment to connect with a live Facebook employee for help.
Facebook has faced criticism for years over the way it moderates misinformation and extremist content. The police killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed prompted the latest outcry that has snowballed into this growing boycott, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL. “We literally had extremists out in the open organizing on Facebook to disrupt these peaceful protests,” he said. “We had people advocating for violent unrest—I’m talking white nationalists and anti government groups—publicly coordinating on the platform on how they would undermine these efforts.
“We reached out to Facebook and said, ‘Hey, we really need a meeting now to deal with these issues,’” Greenblatt added. “And we didn’t get that with Mark and with Sheryl at the highest levels. We decided it was time to act.”
An advertising boycott was a natural choice—Facebook made 99% of its $70 billion revenue in 2019 from ads. Greenblatt stressed that the boycott is just a one month pause: “We don’t think this will somehow change the financial trajectory of the company. Our intent wasn’t to bankrupt the business; the intent was to make a point about the platform.”
Zuckerberg and Sandberg will take the meeting Greenblatt mentioned this time around. They will meet with him, NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson, and Robinson of Color of Change, early next week, an ADL spokesperson confirmed.
On the same day Facebook confirmed Zuckerberg’s attendance, the company also went on the defensive, publishing a rebuttal in AdAge by communications and global affairs chief Nick Clegg. “Facebook Does Not Benefit from Hate,” the piece’s headline reads.
“When content falls short of being classified as hate speech—or of our other policies aimed at preventing harm or voter suppression—we err on the side of free expression because, ultimately, the best way to counter hurtful, divisive, offensive speech, is more speech,” Clegg wrote. “Exposing it to sunlight is better than hiding it in the shadows.”
Hatch of Color of Change said that Facebook could make its stance clear by announcing the aforementioned civil rights infrastructure and making its previously conducted internal civil rights audit available to the public. “Meeting those demands would help a lot of us feel like they’re acting in good faith, that they’re actually trying to solve the problem.”
But she stressed caution, weary of previous pleas with the company that fell short in some critics’ eyes.
“This is not a new demand for Facebook, and it’s unclear why in a moment where so many corporations are trying to stand on the right side of history, why Facebook won’t do that as well.”