Hate is­sue costs Face­book bil­lions

Ad­ver­tis­ers have found their mo­ral back­bone and are forc­ing the com­pany to take its sys­temic prob­lems se­ri­ously

Financial Mail - - PATTERN RECOGNITIO­N - @shap­shak BY TOBY SHAP­SHAK

Fifty-six bil­lion dol­lars. That’s how much Face­book’s share price lost on Fri­day af­ter news that con­sumer gi­ant Unilever would pull its ad­ver­tis­ing for the rest of the year. CEO Mark Zucker­berg’s per­sonal wealth took a $7bn hit.

Af­ter years of ig­nor­ing its big­gest prob­lem, Face­book is fi­nally con­fronted by its in­abil­ity to con­trol dis­in­for­ma­tion, hate speech and the in­sid­i­ous rise of posts re­lat­ing to white supremacy (and all its vi­cious­ness) on its plat­form. Years of prom­ises to do bet­ter and to fix prob­lems — by bring­ing in ex­ter­nal fact check­ers and delet­ing ma­li­cious and bot ac­counts — haven’t stopped con­tro­ver­sies from rock­ing the world’s big­gest so­cial network. As Star Wars char­ac­ter Yoda has al­ways said: try­ing is not do­ing.

Ad­ver­tis­ers, con­scious of their brands’ per­cep­tion in an era of height­ened aware­ness about hate speech in the US, have had enough. The longsim­mer­ing is­sue, in­clud­ing sys­temic racism and po­lice bru­tal­ity that has erupted af­ter the mur­der of Ge­orge Floyd last month, has fi­nally pushed ad­ver­tis­ers to act. Unilever’s shock an­nounce­ment was fol­lowed by sim­i­lar moves by Coca-cola, Pep­sico and Levi’s, while Star­bucks joined the boy­cott on Sun­day. About 90 ma­jor firms are now in­volved.

Face­book has been suck­ing up to con­ser­va­tives for years, es­pe­cially Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, fear­ing a right-wing back­lash. How­ever, it seems not only to have for­got­ten its orig­i­nal cause to con­nect peo­ple, but also that its other ma­jor con­stituency — its ad­ver­tis­ers — might find their mo­ral back­bone again.

As al­ways, change has been spurred by an out­side fac­tor, not Face­book’s own con­fused in­ter­nal logic and tan­gled ethics: the un­stop­pable so­cial tsunami of rage, out­rage and sheer pain about #Black­lives­mat­ter.

Af­ter decades of hor­ror killings of in­no­cent black men by armed po­lice, the US has erupted, and some mean­ing­ful changes fi­nally ap­pear to be in the off­ing. And ad­ver­tis­ers have at last voiced their dis­ap­proval of Face­book’s in­abil­ity to rein in the hate speech, misog­yny and anti-semitism. They’re vot­ing with their dol­lars, and it could cost Face­book bil­lions in ad rev­enue.

More im­por­tantly, the stock mar­ket — un­car­ing as it usu­ally is about eth­i­cal is­sues — does re­spond to fi­nan­cial stim­uli, and bil­lions of dol­lars in lost ad­ver­tis­ing cer­tainly trig­ger events like Fri­day’s sell-off.

Face­book may take com­fort in the fact that it has been in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion be­fore and has re­cov­ered. But this is dif­fer­ent – and ad­ver­tiser con­cerns are not go­ing away. It’s also an elec­tion year and af­ter the gob­s­mack­ing ma­nip­u­la­tion in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, so­cial net­works are un­der the mi­cro­scope.

“We set our poli­cies based on prin­ci­ples rather than busi­ness in­ter­ests,” ac­cord­ing to a Face­book memo seen by Bloomberg. Now is the time, then, for Face­book to find its own mo­ral com­pass and do the right thing.

But I doubt it will.

Shap­shak is edi­tor-in-chief and pub­lisher of

Face­book is fi­nally con­fronted by its in­abil­ity to con­trol dis­in­for­ma­tion, hate speech and the rise of white supremacy posts on its plat­form

Stuff mag­a­zine (stuff.co.za)

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