#BlackLivesMatter & Racial Justice: Digital Activism on Facebook

A Burrard Strategy Special Series

The world’s top corporate brands recently advertised their support for the #BlackLivesMatter cause on Facebook, but they dropped their ad campaigns as quickly as they started them.   

In our exclusive Burrard Strategy Digital Corporate Social Activism series, our team examines Facebook’s attempt to address its role in the mounting controversy around online political speech, and why critics’ demands for an all-out boycott have been taken seriously by some of the most prominent brands in the western world.  

By utilizing the Facebook Graph API, we review and analyze data from all Facebook advertising related to social issues, elections and politics from May through to June 2020. 

In our series, we explain why this is important, what the implications are for businesses who want to align themselves with the progressive causes that their consumers care about.


PART I:  FACEBOOK’S STRUGGLE WITH PUBLIC TRUST

With great fanfare, Facebook rolled out its new enforcement of its Political Ads Policy in May of 2018, an expansion of its Community Standards, in an effort to rebuild trust in its platform in the context of rapidly spreading dangerous misinformation and disinformation, as well as hate speech.  Canada’s Facebook ad registry was rolled out a year later, just prior to the 2019 federal election campaign.

When the new registry was launched, Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox said “We hope … these changes will be a big step to improve the quality of civic engagement in our products, and to keep the public discourse strong.”

The registry doesn’t just apply to politicians or advocacy groups.  Anyone who pays to promote content related to social issues, elections and/or politics must publicly register. In return, Facebook publicly discloses how much the advertisers spent, which demographic audiences they targeted, and the duration for each of their campaigns.  

The registry also gives users contact details for those responsible for running the ads. All this information is publicly available for seven years.  (In Canada, Facebook’s reporting requirements for third-party spending on political issues are much more onerous than anything required by Elections Canada.)

Minneapolis Protests

One thing that the registry did not tackle is fact-checking from politicians, or policing them for hateful speech. This became a big issue in the United States with the police murder of George Floyd.

As citizens rose up to protest in Minneapolis, President Trump posted on Facebook and Twitter: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

Twitter hid the tweet under a warning message because it violated the platform’s rules on “glorifying violence.”  Facebook left it up as-is.

Zuckerberg defended this decision, saying that the platform’s policy “allows discussion around state use of force.”  

“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open,” Zuckerberg said.

The post received about 250,000 reactions and over 70,000 shares. 

Everyone else (ie. non-politicians) posting on Facebook would have been stopped in their tracks.

This includes corporations and businesses.  Like politicians, they must also register to advertise social and political content, but, unlike politicians, they are not exempted from fact-checking.

All of this comes at a time when Americans are demanding that corporations use their platforms to advocate for social justice.  According to a recent poll, almost three quarters of U.S. adults believe that corporate brands have a role in addressing racial injustice and police brutality.  Three out of five Americans want corporate advertisers to use their position and influence to advocate for #BlackLivesMatter specifically.

Even though it has been clear from the outset that the Facebook registry has not stopped lies and hate speech from being spread on its platform, a number of well-known corporate brands sought ways to demonstrate solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement on their corporate Facebook pages in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Corporate Brands – Show of Solidarity

In the midst of the ensuing national crisis, global big-name brands were quick to announce changes at their organizational level, offer substantial donations, and advertise their support for racial justice.

  • Coca-Cola ran 4 politically-oriented Facebook ads in the US.  As we reported earlier, the company registered to run political ads on June 3, and started spending up to  $104,998 beginning on June 4 to highlight its donation to 100 Black Men of America.  Similarly, the brand originally ran two ads and spent up to $5,098 to promote LGBTQ advocacy back in 2018, but the company had not registered for compliance in the past, and the ads were turned off by Facebook.
Coca-Cola’s Facebook Ads
  • The National Football League recently ran 132 ads and spent up to $93,668 on its #InspireChange campaign, a collaboration with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, addressing criminal justice reform, police and community relations, and economic empowerment.
NFL’s Facebook Ads
  • Ben and Jerry’s ran 80 ads, and spent $42,720.00 on targeting anti-racism in the last two years, in a campaign that has been called “Dismantling of White Supremacy.” Since registering to run these ads, the ice cream company spent almost $1.8 million advocating for racial equality, voting reform, LGBTQ issues and marijuana legalization, with a total of 2389 ads placed.
Ben & Jerry’s Facebook Ads

Here in Canada: 

  • BMO Financial took the plunge to support the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement.  Among the Big 5 Canadian Banks, it was the only one to spend on anti-racism and Black advocacy, with two ads in English, totalling up to $6,498.00. In this campaign, they announced a $1M donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
  • Since registering for compliance in July 2019, BMO Financial has run a total of 36 ads. The bank has spent $101,064.00 on all issues, including Black advocacy, women’s empowerment and supporting Canadian Forces members, including an ad honouring Remembrance Day1.
  • During their #BMOforWomen campaign, the bank ran 29 ads and spent $78,771.00.
BMO’s Facebook Ads


Meanwhile, other brands posted their advocacy content to their social media platforms without spending money to amplify the content, or they opted to place their ads on television. 

For a full list of corporate responses to BLM and Stop Hate for Profit. 

Facebook Boycott

All this digital corporate social activism on Facebook was short-lived. 

In early July, major commercial spending came to a halt as the global demand for Facebook to address racism across its platform grew. 

The Stop Hate for Profit movement was in full swing.On June 17th, Color of Change, a U.S.-based digital advocacy organization, turned its long-standing criticisms of the Facebook platform into an international advocacy effort. The organization, which recently found success in the #JusticeforFloyd campaign (more on that in our series) joined together with the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Anti-Defamation League, and other social justice advocacy organizations, to launch the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign. The campaign asked companies to “act against hate and disinformation being spread by Facebook.”

Key demands include:

  • Refund advertisers whose ads were shown next to content that was later removed for violations of terms of service. 
  • Find and remove Facebook groups focused on white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism.
  • Eliminate the “politician exemption;” removing misinformation related to voting; and prohibiting calls to violence by politicians in any format.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strong Facebook critic, said, “advertisers have tremendous leverage” over Facebook, and “I would say to them, know your power.” 

Many Fortune 500 companies heeded the call and committed to stop spending on the platform and signed their name as participants in this coalition, including Honda, Unilever, McDonald’s, Patagonia, Levi’s and hundreds more. 

By mid-July, Bloomberg reported the #StopHateForProfit campaign cost Facebook $7B,  as its shares fell 8.3%.

NAACP President & CEO Derrick Johnson said:  “While we recognize the value that Facebook provides in connecting people of color with one another, we call into question a platform that profits from the suppression of Black votes or Black voices.”

Long before there was a #StopHateforProfit campaign, Color of Change maintained harsh criticisms against Facebook.  For more than 5 years, the organization has been calling on Facebook “to do the right thing and make their platform safer for the millions of Black people that use it.” 

Their website states: 

“From the monetization of hate speech to discrimination in their algorithms to the proliferation of voter suppression to the silencing of Black voices, Facebook has refused to take responsibility for hate, bias, and discrimination growing on their platforms.” 

Concerns about the efficacy of Facebook’s Community Standards have been building up since the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Last Fall, the social media giant was sharply criticized for not fact-checking ads by politicians or their campaigns. 

Appearing before the U.S. Congress, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg insisted that politicians must have the right to express “free speech” on the platform.  He also denied any profit motive for this position, noting that political ads make up less than half of a percent of Facebook’s revenue.

Photo: Getty Images / Morning Consult illustration by Samantha Elbouez

All of this came to a head with the George Floyd murder, and Trump’s incitement to violence.

On July 7th, Color of Change met with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to discuss their demands for the platform to do more. It didn’t go so well. A day later, civil rights groups released the results of a two-year audit conducted with assistance from Facebook itself. 

In the final report, the auditors gave Facebook credit for expanding policies against voter suppression and census interference, but the progress had been offset by “the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”

One of their biggest concerns is that the platform does not confidently control where your ads are placed.  Facebook does not protect advertisers from being associated with racist, hateful, and violent content.

Some of Facebook’s big advertisers found their ads placed right next to controversial racially-charged content from Facebook users.  For example, Airbnb found that their Facebook ad was placed next to a Three Percenters group (The ADL describes them as a right-wing militia group) which posted a racist and provocative, anti-Islamic take on Aunt Jemima’s syrup.

Another example shows an advertisement for Verizon next to a video from the QAnon supporters page. The ADL describes QAnon as a wide-reaching conspiracy-theory group, popular among right-wing extremists and anti-Semites.

Photo: ADL

In the context of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, Color Of Change, the leading organization behind the campaign did not stop spending on the Facebook platform, despite calling on global brands to stop commercial spending on the platform (the 99.5% of Facebook advertising not covered by the Ad Registry.)

#StopHateforProfit also didn’t stop their Facebook ads. “We’re not asking organizations, especially organizations fighting for racial justice, to stop their ads either,” they proclaimed on their website

The Path Ahead

The irony of all of this is that the corporate brands stopped all advertising, including their paid racial justice digital advocacy campaigns.  And who can blame them?

Until Facebook properly addresses problematic and alarming content on its platform, all advertisers run the risk that their paid ads — regardless of content — will appear next to posts dedicated to hate, misinformation and/or racism.  It could also appear beside politicians’s posts, all of whom are all exempted by Facebook from being required to tell the truth.

How Facebook manages these issues in the coming months will demonstrate their true commitment to meaningful public dialogue free from misinformation, disinformation, racism and hate. 

Burrard Strategy will have more to say about this. In our upcoming Digital Corporate Social Activism series, we will be conducting a “deeper dive” into the following issues:

  • The history of racial justice advocacy online 
  • The events that led to Facebook’s Ads Library and why critics say that this is not enough
  • Which advertisers spent money advertising about racial justice advocacy in Canada
  • Tips and practices for businesses who want to advocate for social and political issues on social media platforms 

1 In calculating these numbers we acknowledge ads are ongoing and different variables can affect ad campaign reporting. *Calculations for Coca-Cola, BMO and Ben & Jerry’s used a word query for the term “racis” to capture ads that included the words racist or racism. In looking at the NFL, we searched for ads that included the word “inspirechange.” All ads in the library include a lower bound and upper bound range. For the purposes of this exercise we identified ad spend based on upper bound spend. Some ads will have spent less than the upper bound and some more than their lower bound. Adding the total of all upper bound spend is how we calculated specific advertisers spend for different date ranges. Time frames: BMO (June 2019 to July 15, 2020); NFL (May 2018-July 15, 2020); Ben & Jerry’s (May 2018 to July 15, 2020); Coca-Cola (June 3, 2020 to July 15, 2020). All prices are in USD currency with exception of BMO Financial which is in CDN currency.

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