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Did the Facebook Ad Boycott Work?

This post originally appeared in Huddle.Today.

There are about 7.8 billion people on planet earth right now, and 2.7-billion of them use Facebook.

Facebook is unprecedented. Never before has there been such rapid adoption of new technology by so many people. Facebook does a lot of good, offering new ways to create and enhance friendships and build community, all at a truly massive scale

But, no surprise to anyone paying attention, there is also a dark side to Facebook. The platform is rife with misinformation, disinformation and hate speech. Facebook has been under the gun for allowing its service to be abused since it came to light that Russian intelligence agents used fake accounts and fake ads on Facebook to foster social dissent in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. That intervention helped elect Donald Trump.

Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before Congress and vilified in the media, yet despite it all, Facebook keeps adding new users and making billions of dollars in profit.

This summer it looked like a new advertising boycott would force Facebook to be accountable for the lies and hate spread on its platform. The “Stop Hate For Profit” movement called for companies to pull their ads from Facebook in July. It grew quickly, from the usual, socially progressive suspects like Patagonia to also include major global consumer brands like Coca Cola, Starbucks, Microsoft and Levi-Strauss. Microsoft spent over $166,000 every day on Facebook, and Starbucks spent over $100,000 daily.

Here in New Brunswick, Moosehead Breweries joined the boycott, as did other Canadian companies like the big banks. In total, over 1,100 companies and not-for-profits publicly joined the #StopHateForProfit campaign while many others quietly dialled back their Facebook ad spending.

The loss of that much money from these major brands must have hurt Facebook, right?

As it turns out, no. The genius of Facebook is that everyone advertises on the platform – not just iconic big brands with billion-dollar marketing budgets but the dry cleaner down the street and the store around the corner that spend a few hundred bucks every month. Zuckerberg said the boycott wouldn’t hurt Facebook’s bottom line and it turns out he was right – Facebook says its ad revenue for the first three weeks of July grew 10 percent over the same time period last year. They expect that growth to continue for the quarter.

So not only did the boycott not hurt Facebook financially, they actually made more money in July compared to last year.

And now, with their performative corporate activism done, things are getting back to normal for big brands – Canada’s big banks, for example, have quietly returned to advertising on Facebook. But some brands, including our hometown hero Moosehead, are reported to have made the Facebook boycott permeant.

So, what does it all mean? Did the #StopHateForProfit movement make any difference?

Well, it certainly didn’t hurt Facebook financially but it has forced the company to begin to take more meaningful steps to confront the damage its platform is doing to society. These repeated hits to its corporate reputation can’t be ignored forever. And while Zuckerberg has been criticized for cozying up to Trump, Facebook finally followed the lead of Twitter and held Trump accountable for the content he is posting – on August 5 Facebook removed a post from Trump’s page where he claimed (falsely) that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19.

Of course, Zuckerberg is in an impossible situation. He didn’t expect to become the global arbiter of truth, particularly in the impossibly divided American society where everything breaks down on political party lines. He will be damned by half the population for any move he makes.

But that’s why they pay him the big bucks I guess. His net worth is said to be over $90 billion, so perhaps we don’t need to shed too many tears for the Zuck. He helped break American society, intentionally or not, it’s his responsibility to help fix it.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.