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 Mark 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 mid-level 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.]