Should climate groups boycott Facebook?

Nearly 1,000 advertisers have joined the campaign to rein in Facebook's racism and disinformation. But most climate groups are not yet on board.

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Last month, on June 24, HEATED reported that Facebook had quietly adopted a policy allowing climate science deniers to bypass the platform’s independent fact-checking process. To spread scientific misinformation about a crisis that threatens millions, all deniers had to do was label their claims “opinion,” and they’d be given a Facebook hall pass.

The next day, the Anti-Defamation League wrote an open letter to all companies that advertise on Facebook, asking them to boycott the social media giant for the month of July. “Just this week, Facebook made the decision to create a giant loophole in its fact-checking program that will allow climate science denial to flourish further,” the letter read. “It’s time to show our dissatisfaction where it hurts: their bottom line.”

A few environmental groups with large Facebook advertising operations promptly followed suit. On June 27, The Natural Resources Defense Council—which has spent nearly $1.8 million on Facebook ads since May 2018—pledged to pause fundraising ads on the platform, saying “the stakes are too high for inaction.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice, which has spent $150,015 on Facebook ads since May 2018, also pledged to pause all its Facebook and Instagram ads for the month. Said Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen:

As an organization that centers justice, it is our duty to stand firm against racism and hate. We must be unequivocally anti-racist in all that we do, and that includes how we spend our ad dollars. We encourage Facebook to take a similar stand and stop the spread and amplification of hate and racism on its platforms.

The climate activist group 350.org, which has spent $92,024 on Facebook ads since May 2018, also said last weekend that it would pause their campaigns to put pressure on the social network.

All three environmental groups are now part of the growing Stop Hate For Profit movement, which includes nearly 1,000 businesses, institutions, and non-profits across the globe. The campaign is “the most substantive effort to date to sanction [Facebook]” for spreading hate speech and disinformation, according to the Washington Post.

In a statement to HEATED, 350.org North America Director Tamara Toles O'Laughlin said it’s past time that other climate and environmental groups follow their lead, and stop giving money to a company that refuses to do anything about spreading climate disinformation and racism.

"Whether it's divesting from fossil fuels or defunding the police, this day and age demands that we put our money where our future is,” she said. “We call on the entire climate movement to reckon with our collective stake in dismantling white supremacy, and align its resources with these values.”

But the majority of environmental and climate groups with big Facebook ad spending operations are still not participating in the Stop Hate For Profit ad boycott. Because if they do, some worry corporate greenwashing and fossil fuel industry manipulation will be allowed to take over the platform entirely.

Greenpeace USA says “paid ads have become inescapable”

To be clear: The Stop Hate For Profit campaign isn’t asking nonprofits or charity organizations to stop advertising on Facebook. The core purpose of the campaign is to target businesses, whose ad spending accounts for the majority of Facebook’s $70 billion annual revenue.

“We recognize that nonprofits may not be able to pause their ads because of the need to amplify their work, and we welcome their support whether or not they decide to pause their spending,” the campaign’s website says.

Still, some environmental nonprofits are joining the Stop Hate for Profit campaign anyway—including several chapters of Greenpeace International: Greenpeace Deutscheland, Greenpeace Switzerland, Greenpeace Energy, and Greenpeace China.

Greenpeace USA, however, is not coming along for the ride. “Nor [will we] be asking other organizations, particularly those fighting for both environmental and racial justice, to stop their ads if they feel unable to do so,” the group’s strategic communications specialist Katie Nelson said in an email.

Over the last 2 years, Greenpeace USA has spent over $2 million on Facebook ads to promote its climate work. "Though Facebook claims to support democracy and the fight for a more just future, paid ads have become inescapable because the platform actively limits the ability of organizations to organically connect with audiences, including supporters,” Nelson said. “If we did not pay to reach people on Facebook, many of our campaigns for a more just and livable future would get buried by big, greenwashed corporate promotions.”

Other prominent green groups skipping the Facebook boycott likely share the belief that Facebook advertising is a necessary evil of advocacy. Just look at this chart I made of 15 well-funded environmental groups that haven’t joined the Facebook ad boycott.* Combined, they’ve given the social network nearly $20 million in the last two years to promote their work.

(The chart includes NRDC because, despite their pledge to pause fundraising ads, the group is still running ads on Facebook that don’t attempt to fundraise).

*Correction: 7/7, 2:30pm: This chart also includes The National Wildlife Federation, which joined the Facebook ad boycott on July 1. It includes them because I messed up and thought they hadn’t. I regret the error.

A screenshot of my stupid spreadsheet analyzing Facebook ad spending by environmental groups that haven’t joined the Stop Hate For Profit boycott.

These groups probably wouldn’t be spending this money if they didn’t believe it was having a positive impact on their work. So it’s possible, and perhaps probable, that some have decided that a symbolic middle finger to Facebook is not worth very much in the long run.

“Facebook ads do not build movements—people and relationships do.”

Richard Wilson couldn’t disagree with that sentiment more. The co-founder of the U.K-based groups Stop Funding Hate and Stop Funding Heat—which encourage companies to stop advertising on platforms that spread racist hate speech and climate denial—he thinks a coordinated Facebook boycott from green groups could make a real difference.

"This could be a pivotal moment in the effort to tackle climate denial on Facebook,” he said. “We know that advertiser pressure is one of the few things that can make big tech sit up and listen.”

Added Wilson: “If more of the world's leading climate groups join in backing #StopHateForProfit and pausing their Facebook ads, it could make all the difference.”

350.org’s social media manager Thelma Young thinks so, too. In a blog post published Tuesday, she argued that joining the Stop Hate for Profit campaign was crucial to showing solidarity with the racial justice movement, and building much-needed relationships with marginalized groups.

“The only way to tackle the climate crisis is through working collectively,” she wrote. “Facebook ads do not build movements—people and relationships do.”

Related reading, Zucker-iceburg edition

MORE FACEBOOK CLIMATE FUCKERY. Just when you thought the fun was over: “In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to misleading and false claims about rising temperatures [on Facebook], according to an E&E News analysis.” Scott Waldman’s new story shows not only how Facebook is allowing climate misinformation to spread easily, but how it’s making it more difficult for scientists to convey actual facts about warming. It’s a must-read, y’all.

THE POWER OF SECOND-HAND ACTIVISM. As Bill McKibben argued in his newsletter last week, the #StopHateForProfit should remind climate activists how powerful it can be to avoid targeting the enemy directly—and instead, target his friends. That sounds dark. What I mean is, Facebook would never change its hate speech policies on its own; activists had to pressure Facebook’s advertisers to do that. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry will never become climate-friendly on its own. To achieve that, activists must pressure the institutions it depends on.

Top photo credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images.

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