A pinch where it hurts: Can Facebook weather the ad boycott?

AP – Over 500 companies officially kicked off an advertising boycott intended to pressure Facebook into taking a stronger stand against hate speech. CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to meet with its organisers early next week.

But whether Zuckerberg agrees to further tighten the social network’s carefully crafted rules probably boils down to a more fundamental question: Does Facebook need big brand advertisers more than the brands need Facebook?

In a broad sense, the current boycott, which will last at least a month, is like nothing Facebook experienced before. Following weeks of protests against police violence and racial injustice, major brands for the first time joined together to protest still-prevalent hate speech on Facebook’s platforms by taking aim at the social network’s USD70 billion in annual ad revenue.

After years of piecemeal measures to address hate, abuse and misinformation on its service, Facebook’s critics hope that pinching the company where it hurts will push it toward more meaningful change.

As of Wednesday, 530 companies signed on — and that’s not counting businesses like Target, which paused advertising but did not formally join the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign, which calls its action a “pause” rather than a boycott.

File photo shows CEO Mark Zuckerberg giving a keynote address during the Facebook F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco. PHOTO: AP

“Many businesses told us how they had been ignored when asking Facebook for changes,” campaign organisers wrote in a letter to advertisers this week. “Together, we finally got Facebook’s attention.”

But Facebook’s already-tarnished public image may sustain more damage than its business. If the ad pause lasts one month, Citi Investment Research analyst Jason Bazinet estimates, the likely impact on Facebook’s stock will be USD1 per share. Based on Wednesday’s closing price of USD237.92, that is a decline of less than half a per cent.

If the businesses extend their boycott indefinitely, Bazinet suggested the likely impact would be USD17 a share, or about a seven per cent decline. That is less than the eight per cent drop Facebook shares sustained last Friday after global consumer-products maker Unilever said it would pause advertising on Facebook and Instagram for the rest of the year.

Also, Facebook shares already bounced back from that dip.

On Wednesday, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg tried to reassure businesses that Facebook “does not benefit from hate” and said the company has every incentive to remove hate speech from its service.

He acknowledged that “many of our critics are angry about the inflammatory rhetoric President Trump posted on our platform and others, and want us to be more aggressive in removing his speech.”

Clegg, however, offered few concessions, and instead repeated Zuckerberg’s frequent talking point that “the only way to hold the powerful to account is ultimately through the ballot box”.

He pointed to Facebook’s get-out-the-vote efforts as evidence of the company’s commitment, along with the billions of dollars, tens of thousands of content moderators and other investments it has made in trying to improve its platform.

While Facebook is making efforts to hear out its critics, it remains clear that ultimate decisions will always rest with its founder and CEO, who holds the majority of the company’s voting shares and could effectively run the company for life, should he desire to.

It is not clear that he will see any reason to bend further to meet protesters’ demands.

“Data of past boycotts suggests the observable impact is relatively mild,” said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at GroupM, advertising holding company WPP’s media agency arm.

At the same time, he added, given these “extraordinary times”, it is possible that a long-term, pervasive boycott could shift advertising dollars away from Facebook to other companies.