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A file photo of Mark Zuckerberg
A file photo of Mark Zuckerberg

Opinion | Brands on Facebook risk being unfriended

It is sensible of advertisers to go off this social media network in alarm over hate speech. Facebook promises to end the menace, but its advertisers may still run a reputation risk

A veritable wave of boycotts by some of the world’s largest advertisers has hit Facebook, knocking the company’s shares down by more than 8% on Friday and jolting shareholders. These advertisers are worried about its reluctance to place sufficient curbs on hateful, incendiary and false content on its social media platform. On Friday, Unilever, a maker of consumer goods that has one of the world’s largest ad budgets, joined about 100 companies such as Coca-Cola, Verizon, Honda America and Levi Strauss & Company that have opted to shun the medium either partially or fully. The list is growing, and seems a response to a recent campaign in the US by civil rights groups calling upon corporations to suspend advertising on Facebook this July. While many have decided to pull their ads off for 30 days, Unilever has cited a “polarised election period" to say it would not reach out via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter in America for the rest of 2020. This advertiser rebellion has prompted Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg to declare tighter controls on what can appear on the network. What qualifies for its hate speech prohibitions would be widened in scope, he said, and labels will be used to caution audiences. Even “newsworthy" posts will face stiff action if they threaten peace, he added, no matter whose they are.

Facebook’s reach is so vast that it ought to be under constant scrutiny for any abuse of its social media dominance. Across platforms, it has a user base of over 3 billion, which is about two-thirds of the global population online. Ever since its $19 billion buyout of WhatsApp in 2014, it has had access to handheld screens that rivet human eyeballs tighter than any tool of mass engagement in history. This, in itself, is power. It owns Instagram, too. For many years, big numbers and the ability to address focused audiences attracted marketers looking for a way to get their messages across efficiently. Indeed, ads accounted for most of Facebook’s $71 billion-odd in 2019 revenues. That brands do not live by efficiency alone, however, seems to have got woefully overlooked. Advertiser negligence has finally been exposed as untenable under a rising tide of fake news and toxic propaganda—often the detritus of divisive politics—on these apps that has put off web surfers who care for truth and civil decency. Scandalous data leaks have also made the discerning wary of social media per se. It has taken the convulsive effect of George Floyd’s killing, widespread protests against racism and reactionary posts by US politicians to bring matters to a head. But now that a moment of reckoning is upon us, brands must return to first principles.

The art and craft of persuasion, as practised by advertising, is about addressing open minds, especially those who value the truth conveyed well. For ad efficacy, the chosen vehicle for delivering messages must conform with that approach; a medium that is susceptible to getting hijacked by hate-mongers and interest groups, for example, would not serve the purpose. Crucially, every brand must uphold a consistent set of values, and these can suffer grievously in a jarring ambience. It was always reckless of advertisers to go for weakly-moderated platforms in search of “bang for the buck". While Facebook appears keen to amend its content policy to satisfy advertisers, there is no guarantee that arbitrary labelling will sanitize its platforms adequately. Companies that don’t want to offend sensibilities would have to weigh their risks carefully.

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