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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Facebook Has More to Learn From the Ad Boycott

First it was the outdoors companies like REI and Patagonia. Then Verizon and Honda. Eventually, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and General Motors. Big-name advertisers, not often associated with social justice issues, all boycotting Facebook, at least temporarily. They were spurred by a group called Stop Hate for Profit. The group charged that Facebook was making money from algorithms and policies that fomented hate and racism, and urged advertisers to withhold their money so that Facebook would address concerns about civil rights, diversity, and the presence of hate groups and conspiracy-mongering on the site. Facebook, for its part, says it does not profit from hate. In July, more than 200 major corporations agreed to pull some $7 billion in advertising from Facebook. Many of the advertisers announced that they were pausing at least until the end of the year.

One of the key organizations behind the boycott movement was Color of Change; at more than a million members it claims to be the largest online social justice organization. (Other boycott leaders include the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and Mozilla.) Led by Rashad Robinson, Color of Change has engaged in previous struggles to defund the right-wing political group ALEC, make net neutrality a civil rights issue, and end Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. But Facebook has been, pardon the expression, Robinson’s white whale—he believes that the biggest network the world has ever seen is a divisive force that spreads hate and racism. After years of Robinson urging change, Facebook is listening to him, and this summer he met with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg multiple times.

Robinson, who formerly held posts at GLAAD and the Right to Vote Campaign, has led Color of Change since 2011. He spoke with WIRED about why he thinks Facebook is destructive, his interactions with Zuckerberg, and why he wants Facebook’s VP of global public policy fired. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Steven Levy: When did Color of Change first engage with Facebook?

Rashad Robinson: We started five years ago, when Black Lives Matter activists were being doxed on Facebook. People were showing up to folks’ homes. People were being followed in grocery stores. We tried to get Facebook to do something about it, but they sent us through online portals designed to give us automated responses. We ended up having meetings at Facebook about it with midlevel policy people.

Did you feel disrespected?

It would have been fine if we had gotten what we wanted. We demanded a civil rights audit of Facebook because there were just more and more stories around diversity and inclusion. We got a tepid response, no real movement. Facebook is very clear about who makes all the decisions. Then we worked with Cory Booker's office to have him ask a question of Mark Zuckerberg when he testified [at a 2018 Senate hearing] about doing a civil rights audit. Mark committed to it.

I remember that they paired the announcement of a civil rights audit with an audit by conservatives to look into their suspicions that Facebook is biased against them.

Facebook has weaponized this idea that attacks on conservatives for their ideas is the same on attacks on Black people for who we are. They might have a deeper understanding now, but at the time, they had a very limited understanding of civil rights and civil rights implications. And every time I talked to them, I felt like I was trying to help Facebook understand that there was left and right and there was right and wrong. When they actually brought someone in to train their staff on voter suppression—a respected former Legal Defense Fund lawyer—they also brought someone to do a training on quote unquote, voter fraud. [The speaker was Michael Toner, a former Federal Elections Commission chair and former head of the Republican National Committee. Facebook said in a statement, "We brought in two outside experts with decades of experience in voting rights and election law to provide training to Facebook staff working in the election war room." Numerous studies indicate that voter fraud is rare or nonexistent in the United States.]

Sheryl Sandberg has always presented herself as caring deeply about civil rights. You would think that she would speak against that sort of false equivalence.

I've had a lot of conversations with her. There's a question about who is the final decisionmaker. Also, Facebook VP of public policy Joel Kaplan works for Sheryl, essentially. Joel Kaplan should not be a person who gets to ensure that voter suppression is not happening. We have a public campaign to fire Joel Kaplan. [Kaplan, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, is viewed as a voice for conservatives within Facebook.]

Have you talked to Kaplan?

We had a meeting June 1, where Joel was on the Zoom, but I never addressed him. In the more recent meeting with Mark and Sheryl, Joel wasn't on the call.

That was the July 7 meeting that addressed the advertiser boycott. What happened there?

I got into a back and forth with Mark, about the voter suppression post—the looters and shooters post—trying to talk about the incentive structures. [On May 29, the Donald Trump account reposted on Facebook a tweet saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and Zuckerberg allowed it to remain.] I didn't mention Joel's name, but he knew that that's what I was saying. And then Mark said, “You don't think Republicans should work at Facebook?” It’s almost like each time I talk to them, we end up right back in this same conversation, where they have civil rights as left and right, not right and wrong. And I respond. “I don't think this should be partisan at all. I don't think there should be a Democrat either.” I run campaigns against Democrats too. Unfortunately, that is the prism that they see it through, because they've weaponized conservative bias.

Color of Change is part of the advertiser boycott group called Stop Hate for Profit. Do you feel that Facebook consciously profits from hate?

At this point, yes. They consciously know they are profiting from the algorithms and incentive structures on their platform that allow for a certain type of content to be prioritized and to make money.

Do you feel that the boycott has made a difference?

Yes. I've been going back and forth with Facebook for five years, and I've never experienced this level of intensity from them on updates and changes that they're making. [In response to the civil rights audit, Facebook vowed to establish a senior VP for civil rights, ban divisive ads, and be more aggressive in taking down posts on voter suppression.] We know from people on the inside who call us, who want things to change, that this boycott has been the most effective at raising the energy for change. They are clearly responding. But this can't be the ongoing job of civil rights groups to sit around every day and police this platform. And we can't trust them to police themselves. Because time and time again, even when they said that they're going to do something, they fail to actually do it because of their incentives—their business model focused on profit and growth runs up against safety, integrity, and security. So we need rules of the road.

If you had your way what would those rules be?

I would institute a civil rights infrastructure that had ongoing decisionmaking power. Silicon Valley is one of the only industries where there is no sort of certification for how you're held accountable. If you want to be a nurse or a doctor you need to be certified. If you're a software engineer, you could just build anything, and you don't have to worry about whether it hurts. There also needs to be tools on the front end to evaluate closed groups, and tools on the back end to be able to quickly pull down closed groups that are inciting violence. They need to do actual training at scale, and to have evaluators [appropriate to] the size of this company to actually monitor safety and integrity on the platform.

Are you going to keep up the boycott?

This is going to evolve. We needed to change the public conversation around Facebook. We needed to help the public and advertisers and everyone else know that they should be asking more questions. We needed to make this an issue that had cultural and political power. I always got into this believing that if we got enough corporations to change the conversation, we could get to a different place.

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