Last Tuesday, Facebook launched what it portrayed as a full-throated defense of small businesses. In taking out full-page ads in major newspapers and creating a webpage encouraging people to “Speak Up for Small Businesses,” the social networking giant argued that a change in Apple’s mobile operating system would decimate family-run enterprises by preventing them from targeting people with online ads.
But while the $750 billion company’s public relations effort has presented a united front with small businesses, some Facebook employees complained about what they called a self-serving campaign that bordered on hypocrisy, according to internal comments and audio of a presentation to workers that were obtained by BuzzFeed News. A change in Apple’s iOS 14 mobile operating system — which requires iPhone owners to opt in to allow companies to track them across other apps and websites — hurts Facebook, some employees argued on the company’s private message boards, and their employer was just using small businesses as a shield.
“It feels like we are trying to justify doing a bad thing by hiding behind people with a sympathetic message,” one engineer wrote in response to an internal post about the campaign from Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president for ads.
“It feels like we are trying to justify doing a bad thing by hiding behind people with a sympathetic message.”
This isn't the first time the two companies have tangled. In 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized Facebook for tracking people across the web to gather data for targeted ads, after which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pushed back. But this campaign represents a full-blown attack as Facebook attempts to pit small businesses against the $2.2 trillion iPhone maker.
The stakes for Facebook are high. Analysts project the company will bring in a record $80 billion in ad sales this year, while internal data shared with employees earlier this month shows that the social network has never had more advertisers. In the last six months of 2020, the company had more than 12.6 million monthly active paying advertisers, up from 11.9 million in the first half of this year, while weekly value of its ads grew 26% to $2.3 billion.
Apple’s plan to require iPhone owners to opt in to being tracked across apps and the web would reduce the amount of data Facebook collects, potentially resulting in less effective ads and less revenue. That change comes during a time when the social networking giant is facing an unprecedented threat to its business as state and federal regulators have threatened to break up the company with a series of antitrust lawsuits.
Facebook is also dealing with public complaints from small business advertisers who are frustrated with its failure to provide adequate customer support and to stop scam ads that often sell counterfeit versions of their products.
“Since launching this effort we have heard from small businesses literally around the world who are worried about how these changes could hurt their businesses,” Facebook spokesperson Ashley Zandy told BuzzFeed News. “Because this is such a critical time for [small- and medium-sized businesses], we will continue to share those stories with the public and our employees.”
Ahead of the Thursday internal talk to explain the anti-Apple campaign, Facebook employees asked or voted up several questions that focused on the consequences of the effort on the social network's already tattered image. The most popular questions expressed skepticism or concern.
“Aren’t we worried that our stance protecting [small- and medium-sized businesses] will backfire as people see it as ‘FB protecting their own business’ instead?” read one top-voted question.
“People want ‘privacy,’” read another. “FB objecting here will be viewed with cynicism. Did we know this would be bad PR, & decide to publish anyway?”
“How do we pick a message that looks less self serving?” one employee asked.
In his answers, Facebook vice president of product marketing Graham Mudd said the company has been “really clear” in marketing materials and calls with analysts and the press that Apple’s iOS change “does have a financial impact on us.” (Facebook’s “Speak Up for Small Businesses” webpage does not mention how the tracking changes would affect the social network.)
“We're not trying to sweep that under the rug,” said Mudd. “We are, you know, a profitable, big company and we're going to get through this and adapt our products and so forth. But the real folks that are going to get hit by this are small businesses, and that's why we made them the focus of the message.”
On the live chat, many Facebook workers chimed in to show their support for the small business entrepreneurs who were part of the presentation. Zandy said the business owners who spoke at the event were not compensated for their time.
“We’re not going to… be the only ones that should be allowed to track people without their consent — any company can do that, even smaller startups and malicious actors,” the employee wrote.
That same person criticized Levy’s post on Workplace, the company’s internal message board.
“The only thing I’m hearing, again and again, is ‘this is bad for the businesses,’ and I’d really like someone at the top to explicitly say, ‘People are better off if they don’t know what we’re doing, if we don’t have to explain ourselves to them, if they don’t get a choice to opt in or opt out of our practices, if we obscure it as much as possible behind interesting features and then get them to accept surreptitious tracking on the back end as long as we downplay it,’” they wrote, before sharing a meme from a British comedy show in which a Nazi officer asks, “Are we the baddies?”
Levy’s post attracted other internal critics. Apple wasn’t preventing tracking, just asking users to consciously choose to be tracked, wrote one employee.
“Why can’t we make opt-in so compelling that people agree to do so,” one worker said. “I can think of a dozen ideas that might make people join. Why couldn't FB create its own version of Prime for example, that gives you discounts on purchases?”
In response to the discussion on his post, Levy said the campaign was “not about our business model.”
“That’s Apple’s marketing working and convincing you to scapegoat us so they can decide how the internet should work — even beyond their devices.”
“That’s Apple’s marketing working and convincing you to scapegoat us so they can decide how the internet should work — even beyond their devices,” he wrote. “I’m an optimist who works in technology because I think tech can be a lever for democratizing access and giving opportunity. Including for businesses. And if you think this is going to stop with personalized ads . . . well, then I disagree.”
Facebook has also endured criticism from small businesses who say the company’s lack of customer service and overreliance on automation is hurting them. In October, amid the year’s biggest quarter for e-commerce sales, small business advertisers and agencies saw their Facebook ads accounts disabled by mistake due to what the company said were automation errors that took days or even weeks to be resolved. The issue happened again this month, according to Bloomberg News.
Facebook’s end of year internal ad team report, obtained by BuzzFeed News, celebrated saving money on customer service in part through automation. The report said Facebook’s cost per support case decreased by more than 30% compared to the previous six months.
Andrew Foxwell, a marketer who runs Foxwell Digital and helps manage a Facebook group dedicated to social media advertising, told BuzzFeed News that he spoke to 50 people personally affected by mistaken account bans this quarter. “The thing that’s important to underscore is these are small businesses and people’s jobs that rely on this platform to work,” he said.
On Workplace, one Facebook employee said the mistaken ad account bans and weak customer support show the company fails to live up to the campaign’s messaging. “[They] highlight that we’re probably not doing everything we can to ‘stand up for small [businesses]’ when we don’t provide human customer service support to small advertisers,” he wrote.