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Tina Casey headshot

NRDC Shames Facebook on Racism and Climate Change

By Tina Casey

The Facebook advertiser boycott called #StopHateForProfit has been gathering steam all week, and over the weekend a powerful new element entered the mix. The Natural Resources Defense Council announced that it is joining an organized campaign in support of the boycott. In doing so, NRDC has brought renewed attention to climate and environmental issues as they relate to structural racism, including voter suppression.

NRDC, environmental justice and voter suppression

The environmental justice movement is closely linked to voter suppression. It is no accident that communities of color bear the brunt of environmental hazards and are more likely to be targeted for voter suppression, such as gerrymandering and the removal of polling places. Communities that cannot vote in full force have less — or no — control over environmental policy on a local, state or national level.

NRDC drew attention to that connection last week when it criticized a state environmental agency for signing off on a permit that would enable a “notorious polluter” to relocate its Chicago metal recycling operation. The move would take the company, General Iron, from the affluent Lincoln Park area to a Southeast Side neighborhood described as a “working class community of color.”

General Iron has been frequently cited for dust and other violations in past years. Nevertheless, NRDC noted that the proposed new site would be only a few blocks away from the local high school, which has already “registered the highest levels of several harmful metals in the state in recent years.”

Southeast Side resident Gina Ramirez, who is NRDC’s Midwest outreach manager, describes the permit as an illustration of ongoing structural racism.

“This is the typical environmental racism that our community is sick of facing year after year,” she said in a press statement. “Lincoln Park neighbors have been fighting this facility for years. If it is not good enough for that neighborhood, why is it good for the Southeast Side?”

As of this writing, Southeast Side activists are hoping that the Chicago Department of Health will step in and deny a permit to General Iron.

Climate change, COVID-19 and Facebook

The environmental justice aspect of climate change has been coming into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the pandemic has steered attention onto the  relationship between air pollution and risk of both climate impacts and health risks. It has also underscored other climate-related vulnerability issues including financial stress and lack of access to affordable health care in communities of color.

That, in turn, reflects on the role of Facebook in spreading disinformation about climate change.

In 2018, for example, the progressive news organization ThinkProgress reported that the problem involves more than simply giving free rein to individual posters. [Note: ThinkProgress ceased operations in 2019].

“Zuckerberg is partnering with a right-wing media outlet that spreads climate disinformation to fact-check stories," reporter Joe Romm noted, “And he recently brought in a right-wing think tank that spreads climate disinformation to figure out whether Facebook displays a liberal bias.”

Environmental groups pressure Facebook to act

Given this context, it makes sense that NRDC would jump on the opportunity to join an organized boycott aimed at pressuring Facebook to reassess its policy.

“Whether it’s hateful, racist and violent propaganda, disinformation to disrupt safe & fair elections, conspiracy theories about the global pandemic or anti-science climate change denial, Facebook must improve its policies and stop the spread of verifiably false information,” NRDC stated in a June 27 Twitter post announcing that it would join the #StopHateForProfit campaign.

The organization EarthJustice also joined #StopHateForProfit on June 27, tweeting that “we must end the suppression of Black voices online.”

The #StopHateForProfit campaign

The inclusion of NRDC and EarthJustice broadens the scope of the #StopHateForProfit campaign. It launched on June 17 with a focus on civil and human rights under the umbrella of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), calling for a month-long boycott of leading Facebook advertisers in July.

The launch members were NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Common Sense, Free Press and Color of Change.

ADL and other civil rights groups have long excoriated Facebook over a hands-off business model that nurtures extremism, including Holocaust denial among other issues related to white supremacy.

In 2018, NAACP called for a weeklong Facebook user boycott after new evidence surfaced that the company had enabled the data firm Cambridge Analytica to engage in a voter suppression campaign targeting Black voters during the 2016 election cycle. 

The new campaign zeroes in on the relationship between white supremacy and voter suppression.

In a launch advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, the campaign outlined its case for an advertiser boycott, drawing attention to the $70 billion Facebook earned from advertising in 2019, which accounted for 99 percent of its revenue. 

“What would you do with $70 billion?” the ad asked.  “We know what Facebook did…They amplified white nationalists by including news sources with known extremist ties in their ‘fact checking’ program. They turned a blind eye to blatant voter suppression on their platform.”

“Could they protect and support Black users? Could they call out Holocaust denial as hate? Could they help get out the vote?” the ad continued. “They absolutely could. But they are actively choosing not to do so.”

The connection to environmental issues began to emerge even before NRDC and EarthJustice joined, as the campaign quickly began garnering support from corporate leaders.

The North Face appears to be the match that lit the fire. On June 19, the company retweeted NAACP President Derrick Johnson's statement of support for #StopHateForProfit, which read in part, “It is clear that Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are no longer simply negligent, but in fact, complacent in the spread of misinformation, despite the irreversible damage to our democracy.”

Patagonia followed suit, and by June 22 REI also joined in, along with other brands that cultivate an outdoorsy or activewear image including Dockers, Eddie Bauer and Lululemon.

As of this writing, the #StopHateForProfit is rapidly approaching the 100-company mark, most notably including several global firms that are actively engaged on green COVID-19 recovery and other, long-term climate and sustainability issues.

Among that group are Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, The Hershey Company, Unilever and Verizon.

But will it work in time for Election Day?

Industry observers have already pointed out that Facebook will probably not suffer a noticeable drop in advertising revenue once the dust has settled.

However, the campaign could have an outsized impact on investors.

Market watchers were already noting weakness in Facebook's stock performance earlier this year, which some attributed to additional expenses that the company incurred after 2018 when it began taking steps to regulate content.

As a possible sign of things to come, last Friday the company’s stock dropped more than 8 percent on word that Verizon and Unilever had joined #StopHateForProfit.

Facebook’s hands-off business model is finally catching up to it. Either it will lose revenue by failing to address voter suppression and hate speech, or it will take on additional expenses that chase investors away.

The company is caught between a rock and a hard place as Election Day looms ahead, and it will be interesting to see which direction it takes.

Image credit: Josh Hild/Unsplash


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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