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In Reversal, Facebook To Label Politicians' Harmful Posts As Ad Boycott Grows

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is under pressure to take bigger steps to curb hate speech and crack down on harmful content on the social network.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is under pressure to take bigger steps to curb hate speech and crack down on harmful content on the social network.

Updated at 8:05 p.m. ET

Facebook will put warning labels on posts that break its rules but are considered newsworthy, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Friday. The new policy marks a reversal for Zuckerberg and comes as more brands pledge to stop advertising on the social network until it does more to curb hate speech and harmful content.

The decision opens the door for Facebook to label posts by President Trump, much as Twitter has done with some of the president's tweets about mail-in ballots and the protests against racism and police brutality. When Trump posted the same messages on Facebook, the social network did nothing, saying the posts did not break its rules.

Facebook's hands-off approach to Trump's most inflammatory rhetoric has come under pressure for weeks now from Democrats, civil rights groups and even Facebook employees. But Zuckerberg has held firm, saying he believes people should be able to see what politicians say no matter how offensive. He has criticized Twitter's decision to label the president's tweets.

But in a livestreamed announcement Friday, Zuckerberg sought to strike a middle ground.

"A handful of times a year, we make a decision to leave up content that would otherwise violate our policies because we consider that the public interest value outweighs the risk of that content," he said. "In the same way that news outlets will often report what a politician says, we think it's important that people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms, too."

He added: "There are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies that I'm announcing here today." He also noted that there is no "newsworthiness" exemption allowed for posts that break Facebook's rules against inciting violence or voter suppression.

Advertisers join chorus of critics

Zuckerberg did not mention the advertising boycott, even as several big brands said they would halt spending on the platform.

The anti-Facebook campaign, dubbed "Stop Hate for Profit," is being organized by civil rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color of Change. They are urging brands to halt Facebook advertising in the month of July, saying the social network profits off bigotry, racism and violence. Facebook brought in nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue last year.

Shortly before Zuckerberg spoke, Unilever, the maker of household brands including Dove soap and Hellmann's mayonnaise, said it would stop advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the U.S. through the end of the year. The company, which is one of the world's biggest marketing spenders, cited a need to end divisiveness and hate speech during a polarized election season.

"Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society," Unilever said in a statement. The announcement sent both social networks' shares lower on Friday, with Facebook closing down 8.3% and Twitter shares falling 7.4%.

Not long after Zuckerberg's livestream, Coca-Cola and Hershey said they, too, were pulling back.

Coca-Cola is pausing "paid advertising on all social media platforms globally for a least 30 days," it said in a statement. "We will take this time to reassess our advertising standards and policies to determine whether revisions are needed internally, and what more we should expect of our social media partners to rid the platforms of hate, violence and inappropriate content. We will let them know we expect greater accountability, action and transparency from them."

Hershey's chief marketing officer, Jill Baskin, said the chocolate maker is joining the July boycott of Facebook and cutting its ad spending on the social network by a third for the rest of 2020. She said Hershey had told Facebook it was "unhappy with their stance on hate speech" earlier in June.

"We do not believe that Facebook is effectively managing violent and divisive speech on their platform. Despite repeated assertions by Facebook to take action, we have not seen meaningful change," she said.

More than 90 brands, including Verizon, Honda's U.S. division, Patagonia, The North Face and REI, have publicly joined the boycott, according to a list compiled by activist group Sleeping Giants.

Sarah Personette, Twitter's vice president for global client solutions, said in a statement: "We have developed policies and platform capabilities designed to protect and serve the public conversation, and as always, are committed to amplifying voices from underrepresented communities and marginalized groups. We are respectful of our partners' decisions and will continue to work and communicate closely with them during this time."

Facebook rolls out new restrictions

On Friday, Zuckerberg also announced a number of new policies aimed at cracking down on voter suppression and curbing hate speech. He said Facebook will ban a wider category of hateful content in ads, including those targeting immigrants. It will take additional steps to ban posts that make false claims about voting. And it will put labels on all posts discussing voting, linking to "authoritativeinformation."

Rashad Robinson, Color of Change's president, described Zuckerberg's announcement as "11 minutes of wasted opportunity to commit to change" and renewed his call to advertisers to pull their money from the platform.

In a joint statement, the groups behind Stop Hate for Profit dismissed Facebook's moves.

"None of this will be vetted or verified — or make a dent in the problem on the largest social media platform on the planet," they wrote. "We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meager steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now."

Editor's note: Facebook and Unilever are among NPR's financial supporters.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.