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Leaked emails have suggested Facebook is trying to stop Starbucks from abandoning the platform altogether over the coffee chain’s frustrations that its content is constantly bombarded by hateful comments. Will other brands follow? 

Last week, Buzzfeed reported that Starbucks was ready to ditch the platform for good over frustrations that anytime it posts about racial and social issues it is faced with a barrage of hate speech. 

”Starbucks is in the process of evaluating their organic presence on FB, and whether they should continue to have a presence on the platform at all," read an email from a Facebook employee to colleagues.

”Anytime they post (organically) in regards to social issues or their mission and values work (eg BLM, LGBTQ, sustainability/climate change) they are overwhelmed by negative/insensitive, hate speech related comments on their posts.”

Starbucks has not yet confirmed its course of action but reiterated that it stands “against hate speech” and believes that ”more can be done to create welcoming and inclusive online communities" in a statement to Buzzfeed. 

Starbucks is certainly not the first to voice concerns over hate speech and misinformation on the site. Last year, a boycott called #StopHateForProfit saw thousands of advertisers pause or pull spending on the platform until it addressed its handling of hate speech and misinformation.

And just last month, British sports teams, athletes, sports bodies and major sponsors like Adidas, Barclays and Budweiser temporarily shunned Facebook and Instagram for failing to manage racist and sexist abuse.

But the effects of these boycotts are questionable. Threats of ad cuts did little to counter Facebook’s soaring ad revenues, which hit approximately $86bn in 2020, a 22% increase from 2019. 

But the platform made the right noises at the height of the walkout by entering into talks with the World Federation of Advertisers – which represents the world’s biggest ad spenders – and agreed on a set of common definitions for things such as hate speech, aggression and bullying. It also launched its long-promised Oversight Board which comprises journalists, academics and politicians to make judgments content moderation issues. This board, for example, made the decision to continue to ban former US president Donald Trump in a move clearly aimed at showing the public Facebook’s intent around its platforms. 

“Many of the demands of the boycott were already being met by the platform in some way,” said Callum McCahon, executive strategy director and partner at Born Social, an agency which counts the BBC and Nandos among its clients. 

“Although the boycott wasn’t effective in achieving its stated purpose, it doesn’t mean it was the wrong course of action. If anything, it has highlighted just how important it is for brands to be on the right side of social issues and that they are willing to take a stand to back this – a clear signal to all media.”

These actions, however, don’t deal with the sheer scale of the hate speech that occurs on the site on a daily basis. And for advertisers that have focused their efforts on social justice causes that stir the masses and by virtue have a tendancy to divide opinion, the problem is unteniable. 

Starbucks’s advertising in the past few years has focused on issues such as environmentalism, LGBT+ equality, racial discrimination. It has 36m people following its Facebook page and a cursory glance at posts since March show that those focused on product average several hundred comments; a post linked to the Stop Asian Hate movement had 2,600. Moderating hate speech at this level might simply be an impossible task for Starbucks alone. 

“Brands that make statements about social issues tend to receive a lot of support from their core community as long as they’ve spent the time building community,” explains Ashley Cooksley, managing director at The Social Element. “But these statements often attract what I’d call ’cause-driven detractors’: people who may not usually engage with the brand, but who will criticize the brand because of its social stances. It is important to differentiate the two, and to know how to amplify the right voices, without letting the detractors take over.”

It seems for Starbucks, the detractors are winning. And it’s not alone. Eric Tsai, senior strategy director at We Are Social New York, says it’s a problem many of its clients that focus on social, environmental and other issues of injustice are still worried about, despite Facebook’s promises of better moderation.

“I’ve seen a continuous stream of negative posts on a range of brands from Patagonia, as it relates to its environmental activism, to Coca-Cola – across all of its brands. I was part of the team that created the Pride Oreo posts years ago, which had a massive amount of negative commentary in addition to the positive press.”

There’s no avoiding receiving negative comments unless you disable that feature. Otherwise, it’s a case of hiring a highly experienced community manager to manually manage the comments as they come in.

Tsai says it has a set of escalation protocols for all its clients and tries to “proactively engage” with anyone posting negatively on content, but admits that it rarely sees the volume of hate speech or negative posts that Starbucks does.

But, it’s unlikely that other advertisers will follow Starbucks and leave the platform. Powerful talk of brands walking away after past scandals like Cambirdge Analytica, only to quietly return ad spend weeks or months later is testament to Facebook’s dominance.

“We’ll see talk of it but Facebook’s user base, across all of its platforms, is huge for a reason. People use and spend a significant amount of time there. And because people are there, brands will need to continue showing up. I think we may [see another boycott]. But ultimately advertisers will go where their audience is, and if they’re still spending time on Facebook platforms – where else will they spend?“ continues Cooksley. 

“If Starbucks does leave Facebook, it would send a powerful message that if Facebook wants to keep their ad revenue and also justify a 30% year-on-year increase, they need to address hate speech in a more effective way.“

For Tsai and his clients at We Are Social, this means Facebook needs to urgently increase its proactive content moderation to root out negative or hateful posts before they show up in community manager’s feeds. “It also needs to allow greater transparency into the process on what can or can’t be on the platform.“