Facebook has grown to become a valuable and profitable tool for businesses around the world. But for some in New Zealand, the platform’s continuous lack of action to combat the spread of hate speech and misinformation has gone on too long.
Stepping away from Facebook has been top of mind for a while – last year, a number of companies around the world participated in a month-long boycott. But many companies who participated – Coca-Cola and Starbucks, for example – have since resumed regular spend.
“Everybody’s looking at doing it but nobody’s actually had the balls to go and do it,” said Socialike’s Alex Ford, who says the marketing agency is halting Facebook marketing and advertising for itself and its clients. Socialike has also removed the Facebook tracking pixel from its website.
This follows Stuff’s decision to hit pause on all Facebook activity last July, a trial that is still ongoing.
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Socialike’s decision, which takes effect from Thursday, stemmed from growing evidence that Facebook’s algorithms amplify fake news and hate speech, something the social media company denies.
Ford said the agency no longer felt comfortable supporting Facebook by paying or sharing content on the platform. Clients who wish to continue advertising and posting to Facebook will have to take it in-house.
“Facebook’s algorithms weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory. Instead, they were designed to get people sharing and engaged with content so they’d stay on the site for longer.
“It’s not that Facebook’s become uncool or untrendy, it’s that Facebook is unethical and people are realising that, and … don’t want to be a part of a community or platform where the promotion of hate speech, or racist comments, or white supremacy is what gets [promoted] because that’s what makes Facebook money.”
Ford questioned why businesses would want their ad spend going towards that sort of behaviour.
“Facebook is evil, it’s one of the most evil platforms.”
How Facebook handles the spread of misinformation has been in the spotlight throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and in the wake of the US Capitol riots on January 6. At a recent US Congress hearing, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg denied the platform aided the riots by allowing misinformation, hate speech and extremism to gain traction online.
The platform has introduced measures to combat the spread of misinformation around the pandemic in recent months – for example, posts about the pandemic are fact-checked and flagged with an information toggle. But there’s more work to be done.
Facebook’s vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, recently explained in an opinion piece published in Morning Consult, that tackling misinformation requires addressing numerous challenges including fake accounts, deceptive behaviour, and misleading and harmful content.
“There are some who believe that we have a financial interest in turning a blind eye to misinformation. The opposite is true. We have every motivation to keep misinformation off of our apps and we’ve taken many steps to do so at the expense of user growth and engagement,” he wrote.
A real ‘Catch 22’
For some businesses, the platform remains vital for growth and communication. During the Covid-19 pandemic, RightWay, an accounting and business advice company, relied on Facebook to update clients on changes to the Wage Subsidy.
“When we look at what gets the most engagement with our target audience and platforms … Facebook is still the one that’s going to provide the most cut through,” said RightWay chief executive Stuart Wilkinson.
The company, however, has stepped back from the platform, rather than completely stepping away. Around five months ago it halted paid advertising on the platform, instead choosing to spend its money elsewhere.
Wilkinson’s concerns with the platform echoed Ford’s, but he noted it’s not easy for businesses to completely boycott it.
“It’s a very hard thing if you’re starting up your business or you’re wanting to grow … They are very good at what they do,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s an interesting balancing act, what I guess you’d call a Catch 22.”
Ford said that while it’s a go-to platform for many brands, ads and posts aren’t delivering results they once did. This, along with tracking transparency changes introduced with the latest Apple update, means businesses can no longer effectively reach, understand and engage with their audience.
In 2019, Facebook generated US$69.7 billion ($99.63b) from advertising, which accounted for more than 98 per cent of its yearly revenue, according to CNN. Most of this money is from the suite of small to medium-sized businesses signed up, rather than large businesses.
Last year’s month-long boycott isn’t likely to have dramatically impacted Facebook’s revenue. In fact, Business Insider predicted revenue from the platform’s 8 million-odd advertisers will grow by 4.9 per cent in 2020.
Wilkinson thought to have a meaningful impact, more major businesses need to get on board and pull their ad spend indefinitely.
“It’s pretty hard for Joe’s Garage in Nelson to go ‘I won’t use Facebook’ … [while] all these big brands are adding fuel to the fire.”
Ford noted that Facebook and other Facebook-owned platforms like Instagram, aren’t the “be all and end all” in the world of marketing. The likes of TikTok, LinkedIn and Spotify, for example, are platforms with significant reach.
“There’s plenty of other platforms and there [are] other platforms that are more positive. There’ll always be more platforms coming out,” Ford explained.
Wilkinson suggested diversifying advertising portfolios to ensure businesses don’t have all their eggs in one basket. This would push Facebook to be more innovative as well, he thought.