Should nonprofits boycott Facebook?
A lot of you have written to me in recent weeks asking where I stand on the Facebook Ad boycott, especially after NTEN wrote about their decision to leave Facebook altogether.
(It’s important to note that when I refer to Facebook, I am also referring to the other two big companies that it owns, namely Instagram and WhatsApp. Any consideration of leaving the world’s most popular social network has to take into consideration leaving and boycotting the other two platforms as well.)
TL;DR – Personally I do agree with the principles behind the Facebook Ad boycott, I’m just not sure it’s the most effective way to change Facebook’s policies.
This blog post is not meant to tell you what to do, but rather to present the different sides of the argument and let you and your communications team make the best decision for your nonprofit.
The pros of Facebook for nonprofits
Many small and mid-size organizations raise tons of money on Facebook.
$4 billion has been raised via the platform since the inception of the donate button and birthday fundraisers, from over 45 million individuals.
Facebook doesn’t take any fees for money raised for 501c3 organizations, and the funds are completely discretionary, so they can be used for operating expenses, or any immediate needs.
Take the example of the Filipino American National Historical Society Museum. Emil Guillermo had just taken up a new post as their Museum Director, a volunteer position in March of this year, when the pandemic struck.
The museum is a small 501c3 with a budget of less than $50,000 a year. They have no major funders, no grants. And they were shut down by the pandemic. Therefore, no income.
Emil took a webinar that I offer on Facebook fundraising, decided to take action, and in 30 minutes created a Fundraiser for the museum. He set a modest goal of $1000 and achieved it in less than 24 hours.
For tiny micro-orgs that have little to no fundraising infrastructure, raising discretionary funds quickly on Facebook can make a huge difference.
(I’m not going to go deeply into the fact that Facebook doesn’t provide information on donors – I’ve always thought that the nonprofit obsession with this is besides the point. Why would you want to communicate with someone who doesn’t want to hear from you? If I sent you $20 in the mail anonymously, you would still take that money, right? You can read more about my thoughts on this in my blog posts here, here, and here.)
People-powered movements can benefit greatly.
It’s hard to imagine the viral movements #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter gaining traction without the power of social media to spread the word quickly to large groups of people.
Remember the #IceBucketChallenge? Millions of people learned, for the first time, about the devastating effects of ALS. They actively engaged their friends and family members to raise money for a cause they hadn’t heard about just days before.
Grassroots word-of-mouth sharing on Twitter,Facebook, and Instagram is still a huge piece of the awareness puzzle for people-powered movements that have no formal advertising or PR budget.
The cons of Facebook for nonprofits
We were sold a bill of goods.
Let’s face it – back when social media first became popular, we were sold a bill of goods. Social media was once promised as the marketing silver bullet for nonprofits and brands. When Facebook rolled out the Business Page in November 2007, the social network touted it as the perfect way to stay in touch with fans and supporters. Some marketing experts even thought it would replace email marketing for good.
Think of it: Setting up a Facebook Business Page completely free! It’s so easy to use! Everyone is doing it! Start posting and like magic, the shares, the clicks, and the donations will just roll in!
When Facebook started to become widely adopted for marketing purposes, the common belief was that nonprofits need to be on it, because it’s “free” and “easy” and “everyone is on there.”
Board members and nonprofit directors started pressuring staff to take on “this Facebook stuff” – because it’s free (and we know how much nonprofits LOVE free)! As we soon found out, Facebook, and social media in general, is free like getting a puppy from your next door neighbor is free.
The algorithm rewards provocative content.
On social media, algorithms dictate which posts show up on a user’s News Feed in which order, and which videos to play, based on viewing history and likelihood to watch the next video, and so on.
Facebook (and the rest of them) is constantly tweaking the News Feed algorithm to entice their users to spend more time on their sites by seeing more of the kinds of posts that will keep them there. This is why a smaller number of your fans and followers are seeing your posts.
Not only is there simply too much information for them to be served all of it, Zuckerberg and co. want to focus on the most addictive types of content – to keep eyeballs on the platform.
As a general rule, Facebook’s algorithms prioritize posts that receive a lot of discussion, engagement, and attention.
Controversial and provocative topics, large international events, and clickbait news headlines always float to the top due to the amount of engagement they receive (positive and negative).
The struggle for nonprofits in this environment is to stand out by creating and sharing content that is timely, relevant, and worthy of discussion so that it reaches more of the intended audience.
It’s become more difficult to run ads about “social issues”.
And social issues are what we work on, after all.
Recent changes to the Facebook Ad platform were established to promote “authenticity and legitimacy for anyone wishing to run ads about social issues, elections or politics.”
According to these rules, ads about social issues, elections or politics are:
- Made by, on behalf of, or about a candidate for public office, a political figure, a political party or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office; or
- About any election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including “go out and vote” or election campaigns; or
- About social issues in any place where the ad is being placed; or
- Regulated as political advertising.
Each country has different rules and regulations for what constitutes a social issue or political ad. In the United States, advertisers need to go through the authorization process and place “Paid for by” disclaimers on ads. This includes any person creating, modifying, publishing or pausing ads that reference political figures, political parties or elections (including “get out the vote” campaigns). Then, ads will enter the Ad Library for seven years.
This could become very problematic for many nonprofits.
In June, Facebook said it will start allowing users in the US to opt-out of seeing social issue ads in their Facebook and Instagram feeds.
This new feature seems designed to play both sides of the “banning political ads” debate, as Facebook has repeatedly said it has no desire and no plans to limit the speech of political candidates, or police and moderate political ads. (Sigh.)
Proliferation of hate speech and disinformation.
I saved the best for last. This is the purpose fueling the #StopHateForProfit boycott – and it’s a BIG one.
I do agree with the letter signed by over 100 nonprofit, labor, faith-based, and advocacy organizations: “The company has repeatedly failed to stop the spread of hate and disinformation across all its products.”
The perfect example is President Trump’s own page, which repeatedly promotes disinformation, hate speech, and racist content.
When Trump wrote “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” on Twitter, they noted the racist history of the phrase, and interpreting it as a potential call for violence, restricted the tweet and added a warning. (But, it should be noted that Twitter did leave up the tweet.)
In a very long but tepid response, Zuckerberg wrote that the statement (which Trump also posted to his Facebook page) wasn’t inciting violence as he saw it, but was “a warning about state action”. “Unlike Twitter,” he wrote, “we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician.”
Facebook staff has since started to speak out on social media, holding a virtual walkout to emphasize that “doing nothing is not acceptable”.
The Facebook Reckoning
I didn’t even get into data breaches, the Cambridge Analytica scandals, Russian election interference. The list seemingly goes on and on.
Facebook has broken our trust again, and again, and again. Facebook’s leaders have failed repeatedly to take a stand.
On the one hand, we always knew that Facebook was not there for us. Like all social media platforms, we are a commodity to be mined for data. These are multi-billion dollar businesses, not companies created for the benefit of the social good.
Do nonprofits want to align with a platform that has broken trust with the public? Will that distrust transfer onto nonprofits?
This may be the price that we pay to be on Facebook, and on social media in general.
The question is – is it an ok price to pay?
Each nonprofit has to decide that, platform by platform, for their own organization.