Facebook is scrambling to prevent Starbucks from leaving its platform after the world’s largest coffee company said it was dismayed by hateful comments left on its posts about racial and social justice issues.
In internal discussions seen by BuzzFeed News, Facebook employees who manage the social network’s relationship with Starbucks wrote that the company has become so frustrated by the hate and intolerance on the platform that it may remove its Facebook page. Were Starbucks to do so, it would be one of the largest companies ever to sever ties with Facebook.
“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,” a Facebook employee wrote to their colleagues earlier this week. “Anytime they post (organically) in regards to social issues or their mission & values work (e.g. BLM, LGBTQ, sustainability/climate change, etc.) they are overwhelmed by negative/insensitive, hate speech related comments on their posts.”
“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.”
The employee went on to note that Starbucks’s community management team has struggled to moderate hateful responses and is unable to disable comments on their page. They also relayed a series of questions from Starbucks management, which sought to understand how Facebook’s algorithms moderated or amplified comments on posts.
Starbucks’s reevaluation of its Facebook presence comes amid a wider reckoning of the hate and misinformation that continues to proliferate on the platform. Last week in the United Kingdom, the Premier League and its 20 associated soccer teams boycotted Facebook and its photo-sharing app, Instagram, for four days in an attempt to bring awareness to the constant racist abuse that players face on those platforms. Last year, Starbucks was one of hundreds of companies to stop advertising on Facebook as part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, which sought to pressure the world’s largest social network into taking a harder stance on racist and hateful content.
Starbucks spokesperson Sanja Gould would not confirm if the company was considering removing its Facebook page, but said in a statement that the coffee corporation stands “against hate speech.”
“While some changes have been implemented, we believe more can be done to create welcoming and inclusive online communities,” she said about Facebook in a statement. “We work collaboratively with all companies we do business with to ensure any advertising done on our behalf is in alignment with our brand standards.”
In a statement, Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever said that Facebook offers "tools to limit this content from appearing on partners’ pages including ways for brands to control those who can comment on their posts."
"Our teams work with our clients around the world on various issues and as this post shows we are working with them to keep hate off of their pages," she said.
While plenty of companies have paused advertising on Facebook to make a statement, those moves have done little to dent a business that, even after the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, recorded a record $86 billion in revenue in 2020.
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In 2018, amid privacy scandals and a #DeleteFacebook campaign supported by Brian Acton, a cofounder of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Elon Musk took down the Facebook pages for his companies Tesla and SpaceX. To date, Musk’s companies have remained off Facebook but still maintain Instagram accounts.
Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, one of the organizations behind the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, called last year’s boycott effective only in the short term. Noting that Facebook was in some ways “too big to boycott,” he saw Starbucks’s possible pullout as a harbinger of other companies reconsidering their relationships with social media.
“This will be a day of reckoning for Facebook, and Starbucks is just one example of a company that is dealing with the fallout of their decisions, or lack thereof,” he said.
While Starbucks has faced previous criticism for prohibiting its employees from showing support for Black Lives Matter, the company regularly posts about social justice issues on its Facebook page. Those posts, however, have become a honeypot for angry, and sometimes racist, followers who don’t agree with the company’s positions on political and social matters.
“We have been and continue to remove comments and users who post racist comments and attacks against the Black community,” Starbucks wrote under a Feb. 1 post that quoted a Black employee discussing her Breonna Taylor memorial. “During Black History Month, we’ll be amplifying Black voices, highlighting Starbucks partners (employees) who are inspired by purpose, family and entrepreneurship, encouraging us all to keep moving forward.”
“You mean you will be censoring posts that don’t fit your narrative.. Ok, see how that works out for you,” one person replied. “I love starbucks actually but your post has nothing to do with COFFEE!”
Other posts about racism received similar responses. When the company spoke of its support of Black Lives Matter last June, commenters demanded respect for police officers. When Starbucks posted in support of Asian Americans on March 17, the day after six Asian Americans were shot and killed in spas in the Atlanta area, commenters insisted the attack was not motivated by race.
“Wasn’t about race...sorry! You know white people of European decent, are targeted constantly, everyday!!!!” one person wrote.
“Y’all still stand with plain old Americans? Or just minorities who identify to create a narrative?” said another.
On June 25 last year, Starbucks posted a video in support of LGBTQ allies. In it, queer employees call and thank people in their lives who supported them as they grappled with their identity and coming out. Some comments were positive and expressed support, but others berated the coffee chain.
“Until I see ALL LIVES MATTER I will not be buying any more Starbucks ! I was a regular a customer . Brought my kids even my dogs . But now it’s about an agenda . Cheers,” said one comment on the video.
Three days later, Starbucks announced it would pause advertising across social media, including on Facebook, in a bid to “stand against hate speech.” It ended in September after the coffee chain said in a blog post that it had “spent the last two months in meaningful discussions with key internal and external stakeholders to help [Starbucks] create a principled approach to our demands of the social media industry.”
The company wrote, “We will hold our media partners accountable to the commitments they have made and will reserve the right to revisit our ad placement strategy to ensure continued progress towards a more civil online environment.”
At Facebook, some who work with Starbucks’s social media team fear the company may move beyond pulling its ads and remove its page completely. According to Starbucks’s annual report, it spent more than $258 million in advertising globally last year.
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights organization, said he was encouraged by the idea that Starbucks would leave but noted that change won’t happen just “by corporations stopping advertising.” He called for lawmakers to act and impose laws to regulate the company.
“I can see other companies joining Starbucks — but unless Facebook is accountable to a set of rules and standards, then their exit from Facebook won’t change Facebook,” Robinson said.