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Last year, advertisers boycotted Facebook over hate speech. Today, they’re silent

November 5, 2021, 8:00 PM UTC

Big advertisers who boycotted Facebook last year over its lax policing of hate speech are now sticking with the social network as it faces an even bigger crisis: a succession of unflattering headlines about its executives putting profits ahead of user safety.

Last year, following George Floyd’s murder, a number of big brands including Microsoft, Verizon, and HP paused advertising on Facebook and Instagram in response to racist and hateful posts on those services. Over 30 companies joined the one-month boycott, including Hershey’s, Reebok, Lululemon, Ben & Jerry’s, and Best Buy

But after the dust settled, many of those businesses returned to buying ads on Facebook, now under new parent company Meta. And today, with Facebook facing another firestorm over its policies, corporations are mostly silent.

Fortune contacted over 30 companies that participated in last year’s campaign. But nearly all of them declined to comment or didn’t respond.

Companies like Clorox and Adidas, which had participated in the boycott, are buying ads on Facebook, according to the platform’s Ad Library. At the time of the boycott, Clorox called itself a “people-centered company committed to [its] values” that hoped to see more progress on Facebook’s hate speech policies. This year, Clorox has run ads on the platform at least as recently as Oct. 14, a month after the deluge of negative stories started.

“It’s perhaps not something that people can galvanize around very easily and could be why they don’t see it as something that they need to take a stand on now,” said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

Last year’s boycott, #StopHateForProfit, was organized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the NAACP, and Color of Change to encourage businesses to stop buying ads on Facebook. The campaign accused Facebook of ignoring posts that incited violence, for designating conservative site Breitbart News a “trusted news source,” and for failing to address attempts at voter suppression.   

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the boycott was semi-successful. Facebook ended up agreeing to hire civil rights executives to help curb hate speech and racial violence, and to classify Holocaust denialism as hate speech and therefore subject to removal. The tech giant also began to jettison extremist groups from the platform and agreed to participate in an independent audit by civil rights lawyers and experts who were chosen by Facebook.

Then, a month and a half ago, the Wall Street Journal began publishing a series of articles based on internal documents that revealed the harmful effects of content posted by users on Facebook. Its investigation found that Facebook had allowed high-profile users to bypass content moderation policies to post explicit content and misinformation, as well as actively ignored the toxic impact of Instagram on young women’s body image and mental health. Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who sparked the investigation, testified before Congress last month to share more about the company, which she said amplifies “division, extremism, and polarization.”

What’s contributing to the inaction this time, some academics said, is that Facebook’s policies allowed much of the content detailed in the news articles. Additionally, Congress is now taking a keen interest in the company by holding Senate hearings to understand how social platforms can harm young children, and by introducing bills to toughen antitrust regulations.

Experts say the public has realized that supporting government regulation may be a more effective way to bring change to Facebook rather than calling on it to clean up its act directly.

“The public has grown tired of apology tours from Facebook leaders [in which] they promised they will do better and work inside the company. And now the relevant actors are outside the company and particularly in D.C.,” said Rob Reich, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. “I think we are headed in the direction of a federal privacy bill or legislation on algorithmic transparency and accountability.”

Only one company from the original Facebook boycott continues its crusade: Patagonia. Ever since participating in #StopHateForProfit last year, the outdoor clothing company has avoided buying Facebook ads.

“The internal Facebook documents released over the last few weeks have made it incredibly clear that they know the irreparable damage that their lack of accountability causes their 3 billion users and the corrosive effects that has on society itself,” Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said in a statement. “Facebook’s executives know what steps it can take to mitigate such harm—yet they have repeatedly failed to reform.”

But there are still some seeds of activism aimed at Facebook. Racial justice group Kairos is spearheading a campaign asking users to stop using Facebook for at least three days, starting on Nov. 10 in protest of its role in recent scandals like the Jan. 6 insurrection and “ignoring disinformation for profit.” Some of Kairos’s demands include the removal of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and for the company to halt its Instagram for Kids project.

Facebook continues to thrive despite its whirlwind of bad press. Its shares are up 20% year to date in 2021. Although its stock slid more than 13% after news outlets continued to publish findings from the Wall Street Journal investigation, it began to rise again even as Haugen testified before U.K. lawmakers recently. Just last week the company announced it had brought in $29 billion in revenue in the third quarter, a 35% gain from the same period a year before. And despite the current firestorm, it expects fourth-quarter revenue of $31.5 billion to $34 billion, or at least $3 billion more than in the same period a year earlier.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that advertisers keep going back to Facebook as long as they’re getting good returns,” Ygal Arounian, a senior equity analyst at Wedbush Securities, told Fortune.

Facebook did not respond to Fortune’s requests for comment. It has defended itself against the drumbeat of news stories about its internal workings, calling them misleading, but it has not publicly spoken about any impact they had on advertisers.

For their part, the original organizers of #StopHateForProfit have no plans to relaunch a corporate boycott campaign. But Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of ADL, one of those organizers, said it could revive the push in the future, though he acknowledges it’ll take a lot more than another ad boycott to change Facebook.

“They are not immune from reputational pressure nor from regulatory intervention,” he added. “I think it’s at this point that we really need to look at those levers if we want to create change.”

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