Please note, this article was originally written in Summer 2020. The message remains frightfully important and relevant.
At the end of May, the world’s eyes were temporarily drawn away from the headlines surrounding the now not-so-novel Coronavirus pandemic. For many, the collective energy was put towards grieving the tragic death of George Floyd and supporting the wave of indignation that spread through the United States. When President Trump sent out that tweet on protests that were, for the most part, peaceful and civil, the reverberations were felt by all. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Those seven words started a chain of events whose outcome remains unknown even today.
This article does not aim to comment on the possible appropriateness of this tweet, nor enter the dark domain of debating the values of freedom of speech and the role of the mega-enterprises Facebook and Twitter in mediating and monitoring their users. We are all aware of the vastly different routes that these two companies took in responding to these words of unquestionable controversy. Whilst Twitter opted for ‘censorship’ or ‘social custodianship’ (depending on your leanings), Facebook decided on a passive plan of inaction. It would appear, not from a moral, but from a commercial perspective, that this decision was not well thought through.
The result was the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.
Facebook is now facing a mass boycott from companies that used the platform for its astonishing advertising reach. Over 400 advertisers have frozen advertising campaigns in protest of Facebook’s policies on monitoring hate speech. Aside from the magnitude of hundreds of companies banding together to combat one of the largest advertising platforms in the world, the movement sheds light on the mentality and stance of many enterprises today. The importance of Facebook in the strategies of modern enterprise is not new to us, and so seeing so many companies, big and small, opting for the side of apparent ‘social justice’ and in the process conceding on vital financing is both inspiring and illuminating.
Firstly, it is worth noting that many companies have only pressed pause on their support temporarily. For some critics, in the case of some companies, this screams of short-termism and a proverbial jumping on bandwagons. The rawness of the murder of Mr Floyd means that in the immediate term, some giants such as Starbucks (the 6th largest advertiser on the platform), Coca Cola and Adidas may benefit from siding with the side of ‘justice’ and leveraging the most impactful stage of what feels to be a new chapter in the civil rights movement. The accompanying statements released by many of these companies draw on common themes of ‘hate’, ‘violence’ and deemed inappropriateness of content.
Safe in the knowledge that they are not acting alone and hopeful that this may rub off well on some sectors of their audience, companies may take the calculated decision to boycott in the short term as a way to boost their public image. I say ‘calculated’ as I think it is fair to posit that some swathes of the population, perhaps older and more conservative segments, are far less sympathetic to the cause than younger, more socially ‘woke’ consumers of products. Even if this division is not accurate, I would argue that participation in this campaign is designed to enchant and appease a specific group of society. It is worth noting that this not an attempt to undermine the good intentions of these brands nor criticise their integrity in campaigning for an end to hate speech on this platform.
Different brands will have different weightings on priorities and will have weighed up the financial and branding advantages of taking part in this social campaign in accordance with their position in the market, their financial security and their reliance on Facebook as a platform. Unilever has struck a more committed approach- pledging to halt advertising campaigns on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (one of the few to boycott the latter) until at least the end of 2020. Only time will tell how the decision of these brands to take part in the #StopHateForProfit boycott will impact their own business and brand. I, however, remain cynical. The zeitgeist will pass, and the hot topic will shift elsewhere. I find it very difficult to see this collective call-to-action last and I fear that Facebook will slip back into its old habits of inaction and tacit tolerance, in spite of their recent communications. I do, sincerely, hope I am wrong and hope that this campaign is deeply impactful and long-lasting like the change it seeks to enact.