Boycott targets Zuckerberg’s control over Facebook

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg took the unusual step on Friday of publicly broadcasting a weekly Q&A with employees. Over a live video feed, the CEO announced a series of updates to Facebook’s policies around hate speech — the central topic fueling a growing boycott of Facebook advertising.

But the new policies, like labeling posts from public figures who break its terms of service, didn’t assuage critics. The coalition of civil rights groups organizing the boycott called the announcement “a small number of small changes.” Demands like adding a high-ranking executive focused on civil rights, providing face-to-face customer service for hate speech victims and removing extra protections for elected leaders were still unmet.

And, though it wasn’t officially included on their public list of proposed changes, the boycott organizers also have a more fundamental complaint: Zuckerberg has too much control.

“Mark Zuckerberg has way too much power for a company of this size and reach,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president and chief of campaigns at Color of Change, one of the boycott’s organizers. “He is the one that is blocking progress in this moment.”

Zuckerberg, who famously co-founded Facebook as a student before dropping out of Harvard University, has always been the most important person at the company, partly thanks to his out-sized control of its board. Recently, he has consolidated even more power. Since 2018 the founders of Facebook’s other properties, like Instagram and WhatsApp, have left the company, giving Zuckerberg more say over its product empire. And a number of board members — including former Gates Foundation CEO Susan Desmond-Hellmann and former American Express Co. CEO Kenneth Chenault — departed in the past two years, many of them over frustrations with Facebook’s corporate governance, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For some, the lack of dissenting voices within and around Facebook is worrying. “This behemoth of a company, that’s operating more as a public utility, must be more accountable,” said NAACP CEO and boycott organizer Derrick Johnson.

Zuckerberg is not the only important executive at the company. He has long relied on Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to run Facebook’s business and policy divisions, and he has a number of top executives who advise him. But unlike Twitter Inc., which goes out of its way to say that CEO Jack Dorsey does not make content decisions, Zuckerberg is clearly the final say on all things Facebook.

“The way decisions escalate in Facebook are very much what you’d expect in any complex organization where there was a hierarchy,” Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president for global affairs and communications, told reporters earlier this month. “For the most difficult decisions, there’s one ultimate decision maker, our CEO and Chair and Founder, Mark Zuckerberg.”

As Facebook’s advertising boycott has grown to include household names like Starbucks Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever, the social network has fought back with an information campaign intended to demonstrate how much the company already does to fight hate online. Facebook has repeated a series of statistics in interviews and in emails to advertising partners, including that the company detects 90% of the hate speech it removes from the platform before any user even flags it.

The company has also been touting a voting information campaign announced earlier this month with the goal of registering 4 million new U.S. voters before the 2020 presidential election. On Friday, Facebook said it would arrange a third-party audit of its quarterly report detailing how much content it takes down for rules violations.

But so far, the piecemeal changes have done little to placate the company’s critics. “It’s unclear what the perfect solution is,” said Mark Shmulik, an analyst at Bernstein Securities. “There’s no kind of silver bullet here to fix it — it’s a very broad, ambiguous problem.”

On the larger issues, Facebook has shown little sign of relenting. Diminishing Zuckerberg’s control over the company is almost entirely out of the question. Repeated shareholder proposals to change Facebook’s voting structure or replace Zuckerberg as chairman have failed to clear the company’s board because Zuckerberg himself has voted against them — the CEO has almost 60% of the vote thanks to a special class of shares unavailable to public investors. The arrangement has raised the question of who, specifically, Zuckerberg is accountable to.

“This is where you have a runaway train,” the NAACP’s Johnson said on Monday on Bloomberg Television. “And that runaway train is causing harm to the public and it’s causing harm to our democracy.”

The group calling for a Facebook boycott has several demands around removing hateful content that could prove difficult for the company to adhere to. Facebook said it’s already doing the best it can to find and remove posts promoting hate. In an interview on Bloomberg Television Monday, Clegg said Facebook does not profit off hate speech, and that it had an “industry-leading record” when it came to dealing with issues related to the “dark side of the internet.”

But Clegg added: “I don’t want to pretend this is an easy straightforward task, that there is a switch we can flick and all hate speech suddenly disappears.”

Hate has always been a problem for open platforms, in part because it’s difficult to define. In some cases, a post that clearly appears to be a rules violation to some people, is considered allowable by others. This dynamic played out late last month after a series of posts from President Trump struck many as a clear threat of violence. However, Zuckerberg said the posts were not actually a violation of Facebook’s policies. The posts remained up and untouched, even though Twitter flagged the same language.

At Color of Change, Hatch understands that the social network, with more than 2 billion monthly users, probably cannot remove hate speech entirely, but she believes Facebook can do more within its current structure. “Certainly when things are flagged they need to be removed, and certainly when things are coming from the current president or an elected official, it needs to be removed,” Hatch said.

Even though the boycott has trimmed billions off Facebook’s market capitalization, it’s not clear how much influence advertisers will have over the company’s processes. Some of the participating companies are heavy spenders, including Starbucks and Unilever, who together spent more than $30 million on Facebook ads during the first six months of the year, according to Pathmatics, a digital marketing analytics company. However, that’s a small amount compared with the almost $35 billion in sales Facebook is projected to report for the same six-month period.

The vast majority of the company’s advertisers are small businesses, not name-brand marketers. Smaller companies rely on Facebook’s direct response ads, which drive specific outcomes like a website visit or an app install. Facebook’s top 100 advertisers accounted for roughly $4.2 billion in sales revenue last year, Pathmatics estimates, or just 6% of all Facebook revenue. So far, only a handful of the company’s 100 top-spending advertisers from 2019 are pulling money from Facebook ads.

“As important as these advertisers are to Facebook, it would likely take a far broader advertising boycott over a longer period of time to materially impact Facebook’s ad revenue,” Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analysts wrote Monday in a note to investors. Facebook stock ended the day Monday up 2.1% despite the new additions to the ad holdout.

Facebook will have more opportunities to try to alleviate concern this week in a series of meetings, including a round table discussion with advertisers and Facebook executives on Tuesday. Color of Change would also like to meet with Facebook this week — but the group is holding out unless Zuckerberg also attends, a spokesperson said. It’s possible that the boycott, which is formally running through July, could extend further depending on how Facebook responds, Hatch said.

“It’s definitely a live, dynamic campaign,” she said. “We’re hopeful we won’t have to make any further adjustments or asks. But that’s up to Facebook really.”

Now read: No major long-term risk to Facebook despite boycotts – Analysts