Facebook Hate Speech Protest: A Primer on Making Businesses Listen


For the last few weeks, Facebook has dealt with growing protests over its failure to shut down groups that make light of rape and violence against women. Campaigners have blasted Facebook executives with emails and used the Twitter hashtag #FBRape to call attention to offensive posts and pages.

Complaints about this sort of hate speech on Facebook are nothing new. A petition launched on Change.org in 2011 similarly asked Facebook to take down pages promoting sexual violence, and garnered more than 225,000 signatures. Facebook did eventually take down some of the offending pages, but it never issued any kind of public statement on the matter. And if the examples of hate speech cited by campaigners this month are any indication, it apparently didn't do much to beef up its monitoring of offensive content.

But it seems this time is different: On Tuesday Facebook published a lengthy blog post acknowledging that it had failed to effectively remove hate speech on the site. It promised to work closely with activist groups to expedite complaints and increase accountability for users responsible for hate speech.

Facebook ad Violence against women
Facebook ad Violence against women

The well-organized social media campaign, as well as increasing media attention, surely helped spur Facebook to action. But what really made a difference was that campaigners hit Facebook in the wallet by convincing businesses to pull their advertising from the site. The response from Facebook came shortly after two major advertisers, Nissan and Nationwide, suspended their Facebook campaigns.

It's a good lesson for any would-be activists: If you have a grievance against a company that relies on advertising, put pressure on the advertisers.

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Consider the case of MTV's "Skins," for instance. The series, adapted from a British show of the same name, came under fire from conservatives for its depiction of oversexed teenagers. The result: sponsors from Taco Bell to H&R Block pulled their ads from the show, and it wound up being canceled after just one season.

Sometimes it's liberals doing the boycotting. After radio host Rush Limbaugh referred to a reproductive rights activist as a "slut," dozens of advertisers pulled their commercials from his show. Cumulus Media, which owns 40 radio stations that broadcast Limbaugh's show, said that it lost millions as a result of the controversy, and now Limbaugh is reportedly considering parting ways with the company.

And then there's Glenn Beck, who saw a mass exodus of advertisers from his Fox News show after branding President Obama a "racist" in 2009. He left the network in 2011, and many attributed his departure to Fox's inability to turn his high ratings into advertising dollars in the wake of the boycott.

Facebook has more than a billion users, and the company clearly feels that it can't be held responsible for everything those users choose to say and do. By going after Facebook's precious advertisers, women's rights advocates forced it to take responsibility -- and in the process, they created a game plan for future activist campaigns.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.