Is It Time for Outdoor Businesses To Dump Facebook?
If the social platform is a virtual public square, as Mark Zukerberg has proclaimed, it’s one that’s rife with hate, lies, weaponized disinformation, and—in the virtual metaverse—a starkly anti-outdoor worldview. Now that its value as an advertising partner has changed the calculus, it’s worth asking again: Is Facebook simply too toxic for business?
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When Jeff Wiguna, CEO and co-founder of the camp-coffee brand Kuju, was in his twenties a decade ago, he spent a lot of time in San Francisco among the tech crowd. From that time and place it looked as if social media were set to transform the world in an unquestionably positive way. Give voice to the voiceless. Democratize the autocracies. Remove the barriers to education and power. Untether progressivism at last. You might recall the zeitgeist.
Today, Wiguna is not so enamored. Early on, he had a mentor at Kuju who told him that advertising on Facebook (now Meta, but we’ll call it and its holdings Facebook throughout) was at odds with the mission of the startup coffee brand, which is to “cultivate rejuvenation” through outdoor recreation, ideally with a cup of joe in hand. “I didn’t fully understand what he was saying at the time,” says Wiguna. “Now I do. Tech is not a savior industry. At best it’s capable of accelerating change, but it’s indiscriminate about what kind of change it brings…Facebook’s vision of a more virtual world is now a competitive threat to the outdoor industry.”
Wiguna does not buy ads on Facebook. Neither does Patagonia. And for a time, The North Face and roughly 1,200 other companies involved in 2020’s Stop Hate for Profit campaign also boycotted Facebook advertising. By the organizers’ own admission, the boycott failed to change Facebook’s policies in any significant way, and with very few exceptions, most companies returned to the platform after a single month.
So now it’s time to ask: Why? If the issues that prompted the boycott still remain, why do so many outdoor companies continue to advertise on the platform? Are the exceptions—like Patagonia and Kuju Coffee—leaders or outliers, and what can we learn from them?
The Case for Quitting Facebook
When the Stop Hate for Profit campaign got going a couple years ago, there were plenty of skeptics who waved off the anti-Facebook crowd as fringe thinkers. That sounds like Patagonia doing Patagonia, the reasoning might have gone. How naive.
For many, that changed in 2021, when the year’s big Facebook leak bolstered the moral case against the platform—and let’s be clear, there is a moral case. Take climate change as one example. There’s no greater threat to the outdoor industry, not to mention global human survival. But according to a study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate released last year, out of 7,000 misleading posts describing climate change as ‘hysteria,’ ‘alarmism,’ or a ‘scam,’ only eight percent were marked as misinformation by Facebook. That same anti-hate group found that a mere 10 publishers produce 69 percent of the climate denial content in the public domain, much of it of course metastasized via Facebook. That’s not an example of Facebook’s democratization of the media, it’s an example of how easily Facebook is weaponized—in this case by climate deniers.
Refusing to take significant action against climate denial is but one knock. Facebook’s own Civic Integrity department, which was founded in response to the wave of provocateurs that hijacked the medium in the 2010s, found that the more negative comments a news story collected on the forum, the more likely Facebook’s algorithms were to promote it. That finding was uniformly true for all content, whether from left, right, or center publishers—and regardless of any adherence (or lack thereof) to facts.
Hate for profit is no longer speculative. You know that angry-face emoji? By Facebook’s design, it reportedly gets five points in algorithmic “weight,” whereas a simple thumbs up gets one. Facebook wants you to see the stuff that makes your cheeks burn.
Profiting off hate; pushing anorexia to teenage girls via Instagram; failing to stand up for democracy while 40,000 “false news” posts an hour poured in on January 6, 2021; trying to get you to respond with anger to the comments of a high school classmate you haven’t seen in decades; in general making you feel kind of shitty—the list of Facebook’s ills goes on. The whistleblower Frances Haugen testified about it before the U.S. Senate: “There is a pattern of behavior that I saw [at] Facebook,” she said. “Facebook choosing to prioritize its profits over people.”
Morally, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign was spot on. Facebook’s maladies aren’t in keeping with the positivity of the outdoors. Which explains Patagonia’s positioning. But even if Facebook reforms, its self-proclaimed future isn’t as a media platform, it’s as a universe unto itself, the so-called metaverse. And that is anathema to those that live and sell the outdoor life. As Patagonia’s CEO Ryan Gellert told me, “I like the natural world the way it is and wouldn’t want a synthetic version.”
Is It Possible to Divest the Outdoor Industry from Facebook?
The Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once penned a story about how real life and moral conviction are often at odds. In the narrative, the main character offers an anecdote about his brother’s pursuit of land to illustrate the moral failings of chasing wealth and comfort. The character tells his brother’s tale while sitting by a roaring hearth with soft slippers on, shortly after admiring a beautiful young woman serving dinner. A little earlier, he’d been luxuriating in a bath house.
The point is that while it’s easy to voice a moral stance, it’s harder to live by rigid positions. The Stop Hate for Profit campaign could be a modern take on Chekhov’s theme. Patagonia, The North Face, Kuju, and all the Stop Hate For Profit signatories object to Facebook’s malignant practices. This is unassailable. But it’s also true that these companies, like you and me, live in a world with Facebook—and other social media platforms with equally dubious underpinnings. The mediums are woven into modern life and business. And, like Chekhov’s character, it can be hard to divorce yourself or your business from daily life.
Although it buys no ads, Patagonia maintains 1.7 million Facebook followers. Kuju Coffee (2,600 followers) also pushes its products and messaging through the platform. This does not make Patagonia or Kuju hypocritical for continuing to post on Facebook while refusing to buy ads, it makes their executives human beings with internal conflict.
For a taste of what that conflict feels like, here’s the only comment The North Face would offer in response to my question about why they returned to Facebook even though no changes were made:
“The North Face will always stand up for equality and justice and condemns hate speech of any kind—on any platform. We have continually reevaluated our position with Facebook and continue to push Facebook to improve its policies against racist, violent, or hateful damaging content and the spread of misinformation. The North Face will continue to lend our voice and support to those who are marginalized and advocate for policies that push for societal change.”
Pursuing a similar thread, I spoke with a social marketer who, because he actively works with Facebook, remains anonymous here. For him, Facebook is especially challenging at the moment. But he also considers it entirely necessary. It is, after all, the most effective marketing channel in human history. The problem is that Facebook is now fraught with risk and antithetical trappings. “It wasn’t like this when I started,” he told me. “But now everybody in this field has these questions in mind all the time. Although I condemn the algorithms that deliver hate and disinformation as much as anyone, I see a future where social media is both more essential to business and more turbulent. There is going to be risk. Companies will have to develop more expertise to handle it. But eventually you will be compromised. I look at it like politics. I will not refuse to vote because I don’t agree with the current political atmosphere. For better or for worse, this is the way the world is. But to end your relationship with Facebook means your traffic drops, and nobody is talking about you—or thinking about what you’re doing right.”
Of course, the equation might still change. It will hearten Facebook’s fiercest detractors to know that, for the first time in recent memory, the company is showing signs of weakness. When Apple restricted user tracking on its mobile devices in 2021, the marketers I spoke with told me Facebook lost some of its superpower—meaning that, without that data, it became far more difficult and expensive to target and acquire customers. They estimate that 50 percent of Facebook’s tracking powers are gone. What the actual number is has not yet been reported, but the takeaway is that, using Facebook in 2022, it costs more money to draw fewer eyeballs. More recently, Google announced that it will likely follow Apple’s lead in restricting tracking. Reports that Facebook is losing viewers for the first time in its history have also hurt ad buying. Facebook says that it will lose $10 billion in sales in 2022 as media buyers spend elsewhere. “They were the magic money tree for four or five years,” says an outdoor industry media buyer I spoke with. “You put money in and more money came out. But that’s changing rapidly now. Meta’s efficacy is gone.”
Not that it won’t remain absurdly powerful, obviously. But if the demands of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign ultimately fell flat because it didn’t hurt Facebook’s profitability enough, then perhaps a weakened Facebook, threatened by competition, will begin to listen to its partners—and ultimately take responsibility for its practices.