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Facebook executive admits to ‘trust deficit’ on call with advertisers

A leading Facebook executive has told advertisers the company is suffering from a “trust deficit” as it tries to stop brands joining a boycott over its policies on political content moderation.

The world’s largest social media group joined a conference call with almost 200 advertisers on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the discussion. Senior policy executives then defended Facebook’s decision to allow several controversial posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on its platform.

According to leaked audio of the call obtained by the Financial Times, Neil Potts, Facebook’s head of trust and safety policy, acknowledged that the company suffered from a “trust deficit”, but added that it was “here to listen” to its clients’ concerns. The call was convened by the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade body in Canada.

The lobbying by Facebook comes as several high-profile brands including apparel groups The North Face and Patagonia and ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s pulled advertising from the platform for July, in protest against the company’s approach to content moderation. Meanwhile on Wednesday, Goodby Silverstein, part of Omnicom Group, with clients including Cisco, BMW and Pepsi, became the first big ad agency to join the boycott. 

Mr Potts had been asked by the IAB on behalf of a member “why as advertisers we should risk our brands’ reputation by staying on your platform”, and how the group was “reconciling the loss of faith in Facebook as a trustworthy source of information”. 

“There is a trust deficit. You try to make a decision and people disagree and maybe that builds that deficit even deeper,” Mr Potts said, He added that the company aimed to “eliminate” the deficit. Peter Stern, Facebook’s director of stakeholder engagement around policy content, also participated in the call. 

Last month, Facebook provoked anger among activists — and its own employees — when it refused to place warnings on several posts by Mr Trump including one in which the US president used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in reference to the continuing protests over the killing of George Floyd.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive, defended the decision not to add warnings to the post, saying they had not breached its policies and that the company was committed to “freedom of expression”. By contrast, Twitter added warnings to identical posts from Mr Trump on its platform including one that it said “glorified violence”.

Several civil rights groups, including Color of Change and the Anti-Defamation League, last week launched a boycott of Facebook, calling for advertisers to curb their spending on the platform using the hashtag “stop hate for profit”.

While some of Facebook’s biggest advertisers, such as Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s, have not pulled spending, the boycott gained traction among several household names this week.

On Tuesday Ben & Jerry’s put out a statement calling for Facebook “to take stronger action to stop its platforms from being used to divide our nation, suppress voters, foment and fan the flames of racism and violence, and undermine our democracy”. Another advertiser, the film group Magnolia Pictures, said it was “seeking meaningful change at Facebook and the end to their amplification of hate speech” as it paused advertising. 

Goodby Silverstein on Wednesday said that it was joining the boycott “to protest the platform’s irresponsible propagation of hate speech, racism, and misleading voter information”, adding that it encouraged its clients to do the same.

According to the audio of Tuesday’s call with marketers, Mr Potts said Facebook was reacting to feedback, reiterating pledges made by Mr Zuckerberg earlier this month to review some of its content moderation policies and its decision-making processes.

Facebook also said that by leaving the Trump posts online the public would know if the president was threatening violence.

“It is normal for us to have conversations with advertisers and discuss issues, including policy matters,” Facebook said in a statement. “This is something we do routinely and will keep doing.”

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