By Christopher Mims
Is the mass advertising boycott hitting Facebook Inc. a meaningful turning point for the social-media king? Or is it just another public-relations storm it weathers on its way to joining the Trillion-Dollar Club?
Companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever are pausing their social-media spend, citing a variety of reasons, most commonly their view that Facebook is not doing enough to eliminate hate speech, and the way the company's products polarize and divide us all. Sound familiar? Accusations like this are leveled at the company with some regularity.
The boycott has brought a great deal of attention to the issue. But it's not Facebook's first "we can do better" moment -- there have been many, and there will probably be many more.
The concerns raised by advertisers, also including Starbucks and Microsoft, can be answered with policy tweaks or public statements. But they can probably never be fixed to the satisfaction of everyone who feels invested in the behavior of Facebook because of the nature of political discourse in America and beyond -- and because of the nature of Facebook itself as a digital forum and a business.
The content critics flag as unacceptable ranges from posts that seem unambiguously hateful or maliciously dishonest to content a significant share of the country might consider part of the political conversation, even if they disagree with it.
The Anti-Defamation League, part of a coalition that pushed many advertisers toward a boycott, compiled several examples of the type of typically right-leaning hate speech and misinformation it says is still often accompanied by ads from big-name brands. One was a spoofed image of a woman in a head scarf on an Aunt Jemima-like syrup bottle with the label "Aunt Jihadi." Another, on a conspiracy group's page, claims the Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to start civil war "just like the days of Hitler," and includes a photo of a military force rolling through an urban street, captioned "MARTIAL LAW, FEMA Coffins In The USA."
But the current backlash owes in large part to Facebook's handling of President Trump's posts on Twitter and Facebook saying " When the looting starts, the shooting starts." Twitter flagged it for "glorifying violence." Facebook left it alone, with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg arguing that it's not Facebook's place to regulate political speech -- a position that infuriated plenty of his own employees.
In discussions of free speech, Facebook is sometimes likened to a modern town square, but there's no precedent in history for it. No town square could ever fit a third of the world's population, let alone give a megaphone to each of those people.
And nothing of that size could ever be imagined to be governed by one billionaire and his private army of bots and humans. Facebook would like to depend on users and algorithms, but it is increasingly dependent on thousands of low-paid contractors to interpret its myriad guidelines about what constitutes permissible content.
All of which helps explain why, to the question of who should draw lines around what exactly is and isn't acceptable speech, Mr. Zuckerberg has long favored the answer: "Not us."
After years of being frustrated by Facebook's perceived inaction, a few groups of academics and civil-rights activists began last November to discuss encouraging advertisers to boycott Facebook, says Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology. He's been advising the boycott movement, called " Stop Hate for Profit," which, in addition to the ADL, includes the NAACP, Color of Change and others.
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said that at a June 1 meeting with Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, he became frustrated with the company's inaction, specifically its failure to apply its hate-speech policies to posts by President Trump, and its failure to bring in an executive with civil-rights experience. "Toward the end of the conversation I told Mark and Sheryl, 'What are we doing here, where we ask for things, and you tell us you're doing things you're not really doing?'"
Amid months of coronavirus-induced lockdowns and bleak economic reports, the video of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd had gone viral and nationwide protests ensued. The ADL saw an explosion of hate speech and conspiracy theories online, which catalyzed the group and its partners to act, says its chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt. Cue the boycott.
Some advertisers have said that pausing spending on Facebook is solely about "brand safety," making sure their ads don't appear with objectionable content. Verizon, for example, has clarified that it is not joining the Stop Hate movement.
Others are riding the same cultural tidal wave that saw brands posting on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Coca-Cola issued a statement, citing racism on the platforms as well as the social-media industry's lack of accountability and transparency about where ads appear. A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola said the company is not officially joining the Stop Hate For Profit boycott.
Facebook has said it plans to work with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, an initiative of the World Federation of Advertisers, which is working on creating standards for what constitutes hate speech and other advertiser-unfriendly content. Facebook will also submit to its first-ever audit by the Media Ratings Council. The aim is self-regulation, similar to the content rating systems found in the videogame and film industries, says Robert Rakowitz, head of GARM.
The businesses withholding ad dollars represent only a fraction of Facebook's revenue, however. Most of that comes from small and medium-size companies. But with public pressure still gaining momentum, there's a chance more could come of this.
So what exactly might a "fixed" Facebook even look like? There is little consensus.
Some focus on overhauling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts internet platforms from liability for the things people say and do on their platforms. Proposals to curtail or end those protections for Facebook and its rivals have come from both the right and the left.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) has suggested giving the Federal Trade Commission expanded powers to review Facebook's content-related decisions, examining them for bias.
Others, including Mr. Harris of the Center for Humane Technology, think a better alternative could be something publicly funded, a sort of Public Broadcasting System for social media. That would be an enormously complicated new undertaking, with its own tricky set of First Amendment issues.
Facebook has never been a company that stands mute in the face of criticism. The company has in the past commissioned independent human-rights assessments and promised sweeping changes. Just this week, it announced it would delete hundreds of accounts and groups devoted to the boogaloo movement, a loose confederation of mostly young white men obsessed with guns, violence and perceived slights to their freedom, which formed online and aims to start a civil war in the U.S.
The endless game of Whac-A-Mole Facebook plays with these kinds of fringe groups illustrates how much its strategy depends on reaction to critics, says Mr. Harris. But it also reflects that, with a service accessed by 2.6 billion people around the world, in a hundred different languages, addressing all the possible ways Facebook can be used -- and misused -- is virtually impossible, he adds.
One of the Stop Hate For Profit movement's key requests is for Facebook to appoint a C-level executive with deep civil-rights expertise who examines products and policies for evidence of discrimination and hate.
It is hard to imagine how that role would fit in Facebook's hierarchy. Facebook has had senior executives with the power to do such reviews, including Joel Kaplan, head of global public policy, and Chris Cox, head of product, who just returned to Facebook a year after departing over disagreements with Mr. Zuckerberg.
Mr. Kaplan, a conservative at a company whose employees overwhelmingly lean liberal, has watered down or scuttled many of the initiatives of engineers at Facebook that had the potential to make its product less divisive with users, The Wall Street Journal reported in May. He did this in part because he was concerned they would disproportionately affect conservative media and voices on the site, according to the Journal. Mr. Cox was responsible for many of those failed initiatives before he left the company.
Facebook's response to the boycott campaign so far has mixed a little fine-tuning with a lot of stay-the-course. Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of communications, wrote on July 1 that the company has a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech, but that finding hate on Facebook's 100 billion daily messages is like finding a needle in a haystack. The company has tripled its safety and security team to 35,000 people, he added.
The company also posted a list of responses to the specific demands of the Stop Hate movement. Among these are expanding a "brand safety hub" to let advertisers view their ads next to more types of Facebook content. Expanding this would entail "substantial technical challenges," the company said.
Another covered the question of potentially violating content in private groups. The company said it's "exploring ways to make a group's moderators more accountable for the content," but points out that permitting or posting violating content already incurs penalties that can result in a group being closed down.
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