Kirsty Weakley: Should charities boycott social media firms?

13 Aug 2020 Voices

Last week, I took part in a discussion organised by the PRCA about what the Facebook boycott means for charities. I was speaking alongside Simon Francis, founder member of Campaign Collective, and Sarah Clarke, head of membership at CharityComms, who have both been involved in the boycott.  

The charity boycott took place throughout July and saw 37 charities, including Barnardo’s, Mind and Parkinson’s UK, pausing advertising on Facebook for the month in protest at the rising level of hate speech on the platform.

CharityComms has also set up a working group to look at broader issues relating to ethics and social media. The aim is to come up with evidence-led recommendations that the sector could put to Facebook and others to make social media less toxic. 

Francis told delegates that he had noticed “a marked increase in the amount of blatantly racist comments” posted in a group he moderates, with a lot of it coming from “suspicious looking accounts” who were not genuine members of the community. However, he struggled to get any support from Facebook. 

Clarke, meanwhile, said that technology has a “power for good” but unfortunately it is not always being used in the right way. 

“Considering that the mission of the charities that we work with is to build a better world, we want to make sure that the tech companies are also working and supporting us to do that in a positive way,” she added.

The ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’ 

How charities do good is as important as the good they are doing, and increasingly social media is a part of the how.

Whenever we see charities on the front page of national newspapers for the wrong reasons, it is usually because the way they are behaving, mainly through how they raise money, is at odds with the ethical standards people expect them to have.

In the past this has manifested itself in condemnation for the likes of selling t-shirts that were produced in sweatshops and investing in arms companies.

Charities frequently come in for harsh, justified, criticism, even though they have not broken any laws or their own rules, and are not behaving any worse than the typical private company.

Given that there is increased awareness about the dangers social media poses and the negative behaviours it facilitates, it’s natural that it is beginning to throw up ethical questions for staff. 

I’d also argue that there’s a reputational risk for charities that are too close to any social media platform that finds itself at the centre of a new scandal.

Power of social media 

That said, it’s worth reflecting on how popular social media companies, particularly Facebook, are with members of the public, and the opportunity they present to charities. 

They are the gatekeepers to a huge audience of potential donors, supporters and service users. 

Social media firms were slow to realise that their platforms could include a fundraising function, but when they did it was hailed as a gamechanger.

There are not many concrete figures, but Facebook claims to raise billions for charities globally. This includes about £6m for Cancer Research UK and £2.5m for Movember. 

So the risks that come with using these platforms does need to be balanced against the benefits. Pressuring them to change is the key.

Power of charity brand 

It may seem as though social media platforms are all powerful giants that won't listen to charities. Indeed, they have often shown themselves to be uncooperative and recalcitrant when governments around the world have tried to impose rules and regulation. 

But charities are powerful too. Maybe not in terms of advertising spend, but the sector has a huge audience of social media users who will listen to, and be influenced by, advice from charities. 

As Francis noted, contacting anyone at tech companies can prove frustrating. I know that from my job trying to report on social media stories affecting charities – if you have questions, it can be challenging to get answers.

However, when these companies are announcing new features aimed at the charity sector, they have certainly been keen to make sure Civil Society News is aware of the development and gives it coverage.

It’s also worth remembering that historically all types of companies have sought to align themselves with charities in order to demonstrate their CSR credentials, and tech companies are no different.

So charities do have some leverage. Withholding their endorsement for a platform is a way of ensuring that  any skeletons in the social media firm's closet are dealt with, preventing embarrassment to both parties further down the line.

Who is having the conversation? 

A few years ago when we spoke about social media to trustees and senior executives, the drive was to get them to understand the potential it offered in terms of reaching new audiences and delivering services differently. 

Things have moved on, and for the most part, people in leadership positions understand their value as a communications tool. The current crisis has certainly helped to underline how much can be achieved virtually. 

Now the challenge is to make sure that boards and executive teams are also having these more nuanced conversations about the ethics of social media so that their strategic decisions are properly informed by the debate.

It can feel unfair that charities are held to higher standards than others. But that attitude doesn’t get the sector very far and grumbling about it won’t solve things. Instead, charities should seize the opportunity to take the lead on shaping the ethical agenda with social media companies before it is too late. 

Civil Society Media are hosting a Charity Technology Breakfast Briefing on 29 September exploring innovation and what does a digital charity of the future look like? Attend this event to explore opportunities to develop your digital offering. View the programme and book online here.


More on