Major Facebook advertisers will be pressured to resume boycott after Capitol chaos

Police shoot tear gas at demonstrators in Washington

Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP

The activist group behind last summer’s massive Facebook advertising boycott has said it will resume its push on major companies to freeze their spending in the wake of this week’s chaos in Washington, DC.

Jim Steyer, head of the US child protection charity Common Sense Media and one of the founders of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, said it would "double down" on its attempts to force social networks into further action against online extremism by hurting their bottom line.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Mr Steyer described the storming of the US Capitol building by pro-Trump protesters as a "9/11 moment" that would serve as a "wake-up call" for the threat of radical movements stoked by social media.

He dismissed Facebook and Twitter’s decision to temporarily ban Donald Trump from their services as a half measure, calling on both companies, as well as YouTube, to permanently expel the President.

Mr Steyer said: "We are doubling down our pressure on the social media companies… we will be approaching, just as we’ve done before, major advertisers and business groups, and you can assume that we’re going to pursue similar measures to get them to pressure the platforms.

"We think there is great momentum and that citizens of all persuasions should call for this. This is the opportunity to force tech platforms once and for all to choose which side of history they want to be on."

Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has in recent years become a prominent critic of social media companies, also joined calls for a renewed ad boycott. 

"If you’re a marketer today, you really have to ask the question of do you want your brand associated with the death of your customers? Four people died at the Capitol," he said. "There are going to be executives who make a reasonable choice that their brands are better served by identifying customers in other ways."

Common Sense Media will lobby the incoming Joe Biden administration and newly-dominant Democratic senators and representatives to impose "legislative and regulatory solutions" on Big Tech.

Twitter promised back in July to take stronger actions against accounts promoting the dangerous QAnon conspiracy. And yet, the platform remains a breeding ground for this #hate. Yesterday's riots at the Capitol show us- again – just how dangerous this conspiracy theory can be. https://t.co/NaBsJTl0mD

— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) January 7, 2021

"You’re going to have a Democratic Congress, you’re going to have a president who is no fan of Facebook and the other social media platforms, and who’s been the victim of misinformation and disinformation," Mr Steyer said. "We’re going to have a lot of really thoughtful and influential friends in Washington."

Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a co-founder of Stop Hate, likewise demanded that social networks suspend Mr Trump "until further notice, if not outright ban [him] altogether", though he was more diffident about asking advertisers to pull their money.

He said that the ADL had been speaking with Mr Biden’s transition team and that he expected a "re-energised" federal government that would be willing to pursue monopoly probes or reforms to social media’s legal protections.

The ADL, founded in 1913 to protect the rights of Jewish people, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP) and other US civil rights to form the Stop Hate coalition.

At the height of the boycott, more than 1,000 companies including Ford, Adidas, Levi’s, Sony, Lego and Unilever backed Stop Hate’s demand for stricter action against hate speech, with many also boycotting Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat.

Jim Steyer, left, with then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, right, at the launch of a children's campaign in 2014

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Data from the advertising analytics firm Pathmatics suggested their absence had cost Facebook up to $370m (£273m) by October. Yet that was only a drop in the ocean next to the $33.5bn it made from adverts in the US and Canada in 2019, and spending by the top 500 advertisers had already recovered to its level in mid-May.

"Clearly the problem is that Facebook and Google are a duopoly so there’s no competition," said Jake Dubbins, a co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network whose members include Havas and O2. "Advertisers find it difficult to choose to go elsewhere because otherwise they’re checking out of one half of a massive part of the internet."

Mr Dubbins believes a renewed boycott could place significant financial pressure on social media giants. "Ultimately, Facebook, Google and Twitter don’t exist without advertising," he said. "That’s where they earn their money. Advertisers have a huge amount of power and also have underestimated or not understood their role in paying for misinformation or hate speech at a global level."

Although Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all acted swiftly to suppress Mr Trump and his supporters’ calls to overturn the election, all three played major roles in the rise of the activist networks at the heart of Wednesday’s rioting, and the dark conspiracy theories that they claimed as grounds for revolt. 

Yet Angelo Carusone, head of the Left-leaning advocacy group Media Matters for America and a veteran of boycotts against Fox News, said it was not yet time for a renewed push against Facebook. Last June he was one of the earliest figures to suggest that measure.

On Thursday, he told the Telegraph that Mr Trump’s suspension had "prevented any massive advertiser blowback", a contrast to last year when Facebook sparked widespread anger by refusing to remove a bellicose post about the George Floyd protests.

Instead, Mr Carusone said the next tipping point would come in a few months’ time, when he believes that Facebook’s failure to address deeper problems with its algorithms will erupt in violent anti-vaccine sabotage campaigns.

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