Unilever pulls Facebook ads on hate speech concerns

Unilever says it will pull digital advertising spending from Facebook and Twitter in the US until at least the end of this year, citing concerns about the proliferation of divisive content and hate speech on the platforms in the lead up to the presidential election.

The decision marks the latest blow to Facebook from a big advertising client, coming just a day after US telecoms group Verizon also said it was joining a growing boycott of the social media group. Other companies including The North Face and the ad agency Goodby Silverstein have said they are pausing advertising for July. Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, a Unilever brand, had also earlier joined the boycott.

Facebook shares, which already fell sharply in morning trading on Friday on the Verizon news, were down 7.5 per cent. Twitter was down 7 per cent.

In a statement, Luis Di Como, Unilever’s executive vice-president of global media, said social media platforms needed to do more “in the areas of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarised election period in the US”, adding that it would pull brand advertising from Facebook and its photo app Instagram and from the group’s smaller rival Twitter.

“Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society. We will be monitoring ongoing and will revisit our current position if necessary,” he added.

Unilever and Verizon are the biggest organisations to have pulled ads in response to Facebook’s handling of hate speech and decision to allow several contentious posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on the platform.

Verizon spent an estimated $850,000 in advertising on Facebook in the US in the first three weeks of June, according to the ad intelligence group Pathmatics, while Unilever spent just over $504,000 over the same period.

Facebook has come under fire in particular for not taking down a post by Mr Trump that used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in reference to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd a month ago. Twitter censured that post for violating its prohibition on glorifying violence.

Last week the Anti-Defamation League and several other activist groups launched a boycott of Facebook under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit, urging advertisers to curb their spending on the platform throughout the month of July.

Goodby Silverstein, part of Omnicom Group, with clients such as Cisco, BMW and Pepsi, earlier this week became the first big ad agency to join the Facebook boycott, saying it wanted to “protest the platform’s irresponsible propagation of hate speech, racism, and misleading voter information”. 

Meanwhile, Verizon made a similar move on Thursday after the ADL published an open letter to companies that advertise on Facebook. In the letter, the ADL said it had found a Verizon advert on Facebook that appeared next to a misleading video from the conspiracy group QAnon “drawing on hateful and antisemitic rhetoric”.

John Nitti, Verizon’s chief media officer, said in a statement that his company’s “brand safety standards have not changed”, adding: “We have strict content policies in place and have zero tolerance when they are breached . . . We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners.”

Facebook has been rushing to staunch the loss of clients. Earlier this week it defended its policies on a private conference call with almost 200 advertisers, according to leaked audio obtained by the Financial Times, with top policy executives admitting that the company had a “trust deficit” but saying they were “here to listen” to marketers.

Several other big advertisers, such as Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, have raised concerns about hate speech on Facebook but have stopped short of pulling spending from the platform. 

Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s global business group vice-president, said in a statement on Thursday: “We respect any brand’s decision, and remain focused on the important work of removing hate speech and providing critical voting information. Our conversations with marketers and civil rights organisations are about how, together, we can be a force for good.”

Sarah Personette, vice-president of global client solutions at Twitter, said the social media group had “developed policies and platform capabilities designed to protect and serve the public conversation”.

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