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Facebook faces ad boycott blues

June 25, 2020, 2:09 PM UTC

Good morning, Data Sheet readers. Tech writer Danielle Abril here filling in for Adam.

Over the past several days, at least 10 companies, including REI, Patagonia, and Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s, have said they would stop buying ads on Facebook during July in protest of what they say is Facebook’s failure to eliminate hate and violence on its service.

“The key is economic pressure from companies and consumers,” Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, one of the boycott organizers, told me on Wednesday. “You have to hit them in the pocketbook, period.”

Part of what #StopHateForProfit wants is for Facebook to deploy a dedicated team to handle complaints from users who say they’ve been targeted for their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sex. The process would allow experts in the field of identity-based hate to evaluate the posts and make better and quicker decisions about how to handle the posts.

The campaign also wants Facebook to automatically remove all ads that promote hate or misinformation, areas the company has historically poorly policed. And it’s calling Facebook to increase safety in private groups by adding moderators to groups with more than 150 members.

In the past, Facebook has struggled with policing its service. Even 16 years after its founding, the company still hasn’t figured out how to effectively use automated techniques to quickly or proactively remove harmful content. 

During the first quarter, Facebook was only able to remove 16% of the 2.3 million posts that violated its policy against bullying and harassment before being told about them. The company has blamed the low numbers on the difficulty finding banned content without users pointing it out.

Much of bullying and harassment is determined by the context or what was previously said or known versus by the language in the post itself, making it hard for automated systems to identify it. 

But even with more blatant offenses, Facebook has decided against taking action—using freedom of speech as a defense. In the case of posts by President Trump threatening violence, for example, Facebook has done nothing. Trump recently wrote that he would use “serious force” against anyone who tried to set up an autonomous zone for protesters in Washington, D.C.  Facebook responded to complaints by saying that Trump’s posts didn’t violate its policies

Some analysts say that if Facebook took action, like Twitter has, it could show advertisers and users that it’s committed to improving. But advocacy groups say that’s not enough. They want long-lasting change in regards to hate and misinformation.

“That’s a much harder problem to solve,” said Mark Shmulik, analyst at brokerage firm AB Bernstein. “I don’t know what the silver bullet is to fix it.”

In the end, analysts say the Facebook ad boycott is unlikely to have a major impact on Facebook’s revenue. But Steyer told me that the advocacy groups don’t plan to back down after the one-month boycott is over. “There’s more coming,” Steyer said. “It’s too important for our democracy.”

Danielle Abril



Johnny be bad. What started off with a series of "pranks inspired by the 1988 movie Johnny Be Good" devolved into an outlandish cyberstalking scandal involving cockroaches, a bloody pig mask, and a harassment campaign, reported The Wall Street Journal about former eBay executives who wanted to silence the writers of a news site that eBay executives believed was too critical of the company. The Journal reported that "eBay executives tried to prove their suspicion [of] its rival Inc.," but "ultimately didn’t find any evidence of that."
We now take it very seriously... Amazon said it formed a "Counterfeit Crimes Unit, dedicated to bringing counterfeiters that violate the law and Amazon’s policies by listing counterfeit products in its store to justice." The move comes after recent media reports described how the online retail giant has failed to address the prevalence of counterfeit goods being sold on its service.

Deleting by default. Google, under intense scrutiny for its vast data-collection policies, said it would "start automatically deleting Google Account activities by default, rather than requiring people do it on their own," tech publication CNET reported. For new users, this means that data such as location, web browsing, and YouTube histories "will disappear after 18 months."

Bug zapping. Sony is debuting a bug bounty program for altruistic hackers to discover and report software flaws in the company's PlayStation Network and the PlayStation 4 video game console, tech publication ZDNet reported. "Sony says it plans to pay security researchers between $100 and up to $50,000 (or even higher) for vulnerabilities reported in the company's products," the report said.

Let's connect. Enterprise software firm Slack has introduced its new Connect service, which lets up to 20 organizations communicate with each other in one Slack channel, VentureBeat reported. It's part of Slack's plan to make its work-collaboration service more appealing to companies as it faces tough competition from rivals like Microsoft and Google.



Robert Julian-Borchak Williams of Farmington Hills, Mich. experienced a nightmare that many people of color fear: Facial-recognition technology used by law enforcement led to police officers believing that he committed a crime when in fact he did not. As The New York Times reported, Williams's experience could be the "first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm." Prosecutors have since apologized for the blunder and said Williams could have his case and fingerprint data expunged.

The Friday that Mr. Williams sat in a Detroit police interrogation room was the day before his 42nd birthday. That morning, his wife emailed his boss to say he would miss work because of a family emergency; it broke his four-year record of perfect attendance.

In Mr. Williams’s recollection, after he held the surveillance video still next to his face, the two detectives leaned back in their chairs and looked at one another. One detective, seeming chagrined, said to his partner: “I guess the computer got it wrong.”

They turned over a third piece of paper, which was another photo of the man from the Shinola store next to Mr. Williams’s driver’s license. Mr. Williams again pointed out that they were not the same person.


Facebook ad boycott: ‘It’s not going to do anything to the company financially’ By Danielle Abril

‘Companies have no choice.’ The pandemic is forcing business to digitize By Michal Lev-Ram

How Trump’s misguided H-1B visa ban will devastate our economy By Nicky Goulimis

Why companies like Porsche and Nestle are turning to worker-owned talent site Braintrust for new hires By Jeff John Roberts

Brazil’s central bank refuses to let Facebook front-run it on payments By Robert Hackett

Russia’s online censorship machine is no longer running smoothly By David Meyer

The Segway rolls into the sunset By David Z. Morris


If you need some laughs during these tough times, The Late Show has some songs from soft-rock crooner Michael Bolton for you to listen to. Since Bolton, known for his bombastic rendition of "When a man loves a women," shares the same last name as President Donald Trump's latest nemesis John Bolton, the show's producers thought it would be appropriate for the troubadour to sing excerpts from the former national security advisor's tell-all book about his time working with Trump. As Spin notes, the Late Show's parody of an Audible commercial features Bolton belting out such lines like, “Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency.” Sure, it's not as romantic as Bolton's other songs like "Said I loved you...but I lied," but it's just as emotionally charged.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Fortune's Jonathan Vanian.