On June 5, Mark Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page to declare, “To members of our Black community: I stand with you. Your lives matter. Black Lives Matter.” Three weeks have passed, and the chickens are already coming home to roost for Zuckerberg’s social-media behemoth. While the founder and CEO may be second guessing his post, he is being reminded, as the rest of us mere mortals know all too well, that the internet is forever.
The NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, among others, called for an advertiser boycott of Facebook. These organizations have long been critical of the platform and its refusal to remove hate speech, despite the fact that numerous reports have found it to be a thriving haven for white supremacists, and other racist and anti-Semitic activity.
As Black Lives Matter protests continue in the wake of the death of George Floyd, and as protesters and policymakers grapple with where to direct the energy of the protest movement, legacy civil rights groups are stepping in to point to actionable items at a time when public attention is rightly focused on the issues around which they are organized. Some were quick to criticize the early expressions of corporate activism, declaring it “performance allyship” in a modern-day echo of Thomas Paine’s scathing “sunshine patriot” denunciation. Zuckerberg’s statement of support provided the catalyst for a renewed, intensified push for concrete action.
Facebook and other social-media giants have traditionally been ultrasensitive to accusations of free speech infringement, a sensitivity which conflicts directly with the goals of the civil rights advocacy community calling for changes to hate-speech policies. Twitter, after much debate, recently flagged two of President Donald Trump’s tweets for content violations, provoking renewed scrutiny of Facebook’s policies around hate speech and disinformation in what some have dubbed “Zuckerberg’s Biggest Challenge Yet.”
To date, the company seems to have felt little need to change, for civil rights organizations or libertarians or anyone else. Zuckerberg declared on a January earnings call that Facebook doesn’t need to be liked anymore, a departure from his previous please-all posture. This newfound brashness speaks to the company’s hubris over its seemingly unassailable business model, which has cornered much of the market for targeted advertising.
Yet, this call for advertisers to boycott Facebook, from a credible and reinvigorated segment of the activist community, represents a direct threat to that model. Advertiser boycotts have risen in popularity as a tactic in recent years, as a new generation of activists have eschewed legislative and other traditional paths for change.
By harnessing the reach of social media, enormous pressure can be brought to bear on advertisers — particularly consumer-facing brands — in a short amount of time, without the infrastructure required to change policy or engage in a prolonged shareholder proxy battle. Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, at the time the most popular show on cable news, was canceled after more than 60 advertisers pulled their money following alleged sexual harassment revelations about the host. The activist group Sleeping Giants, which was involved in the pressure campaign against “The O’Reilly Factor’s” advertisers, has also successfully gotten thousands of companies to commit to cease advertising on the conservative website Breitbart News. The North Face became the first major brand to join the Facebook boycott last week, although it did not commit to pulling ads from Facebook-owned Instagram.
Facebook removed Trump campaign ads last week that displayed a symbol once used by the Nazis, but these actions will not stop civil rights organizations from calling for the company to police hate speech on its platform. Its original statement will continue to be an effective implement to force Zuckerberg to take actions he would prefer to avoid. Honest expression of corporate values, or PR stunt gone awry? For Facebook, it no longer matters.
Corporations that rushed to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks should be prepared for intense scrutiny by activists newly empowered to administer accountability. Many released statements without examining their business operations or, like Facebook, assuming that they could bluster through it as they have always done. But effective crisis management is, and always has been, more about effectively communicating concrete actions, rather than just effectively communicating.
The current moment has already had a dramatic impact on corporate America, and companies that declared their values in statements this month should be prepared to act on them. Those that don’t should be prepared to face the financial consequences.