Social justice groups square off against Facebook

Social justice groups square off against Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg by Aaron-Schwartz, Shutterstock

A growing number of advertisers have had enough of the lies and hate on Facebook. And they’re pulling millions of dollars worth of ad buys to underscore the point.

Among those who have committed to forego ad purchases for the month of July: Verizon, REI, Patagonia, Unilever, and Eddie Bauer. Stop Hate for Profit, a collaboration between Color of Change, NAACP, Sleeping Giants, the Mozilla Foundation, Common Sense, the Anti-Defamation League and other groups, is spearheading the initiative.

Civil rights leaders from the NAACP and the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on June 1 to address ongoing concerns about voter suppression and the platform’s continuing facilitation of hate speech. The meeting...did not go well. Facebook offered little more than the usual vague promises to do better. In return, meeting attendees developed and in short order implemented, the current boycott.

Facebook was given every opportunity to do better. In 2016, the Trump campaign ran a sophisticated disinformation campaign with the assistance of Russian intelligence services, essentially engaging in voter suppression in key swing states. Anyone who claims it didn’t make a difference wasn’t paying attention. Facebook shrugged. They promised to do better.

Facebook then helped fuel racial violence in Myanmar and India. They then promised to do better.

And now, in our precarious present, COVID trutherism runs rampant. As protests against police violence and systemic racism sweep the country, Facebook has once again becomes a hotbed of misinformation about protestors, including regularly whipping rural Americans into frenzies over the imminent arrival of busses full of property-destroying antifa thugs. Nonsensical crackpot peddlers of QAnon number in the millions. Then, there’s the leading source of Facebook misinfo and disinfo, Trump’s ceaseless, naked lying. 

With the 2020 general election nearing, we the people need all the protection we can get against disinformation and voter suppression.

And make no mistake--it’s not your imagination that the lies and misinformation skew in a certain ideological direction. Numerous investigative journalists have exposed the right-wing biases of the platform. The Daily Beast, for example, has reported on the artificially inflated influence of Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, and Facebook’s refusal to address the blatant rule-breaking which allows Shapiro’s tiny site, which produces little original content, to dwarf in reach publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Mark Zuckerberg said he was going to treat all sides the same. But the headline from reporting in The Intercept says it all: “For some reason, we can’t find a single leftist Mark Zuckerberg invited to his dinners with pundits from ‘across the spectrum.’”

Hence the boycott. Facebook  lives and breathes on advertisements, culling every micron of detail from user profiles to generate gargantuan revenues -- $17.74 billion in the first quarter of 2020 alone. Ads are the whole game for the company, accounting for 98.5 percent of all earnings in 2019. Users, and their personal data up to and including the amount of battery on their phones, are the product. Cut the advertisements, and Facebook feels the pinch, immediately. And the June 26th plunge in stock prices will almost certainly get the attention of company leadership. Closely on the heels of this plunge, the company announced minor concessions, including a promise to tag, but not remove misleading content from politicians.

Stop Profit For Hate is demanding Facebook include a new content moderation pipeline, live reporting options for hate speech, moderation options for Facebook groups, and greater data transparency on reporting identity-based hate. The demands are broad, and designed to get a near-term ‘win’ from Facebook.

One demand is for Facebook to provide a moderator option, at user request, for any Facebook group with over 150 members. It’s absolutely critical to address the festering hatred and incitement in these self-selected groups. Most recently, far right extremists in the so-called ‘boogaloo’ movement used these forums to organize attacks against protestors and police. 

In terms of transparency on reporting hate, Facebook has long succeeded in obscuring the full extent to which its platform has become an effective vehicle for recruitment, radicalization, and incitement to hate crimes. We know it’s bad. We just don’t know how bad. This will be good information to have on hand next time Zuck tries to wash his hands of something.

In terms of upgrading the content moderation and removal pipeline, there is almost no way for the process of content tagging and removal to be worse.

An April study from the research and advocacy organization Avaaz, for example, found millions of users exposed to COVID misinformation, despite nearly half of the content already having been tagged by Facebook’s own fact-checking program.

These would be important concessions, but they’d only go so far. Here are a few other ideas:

Get rid of microtargeting. Right now political campaigns can target their ads so precisely that they can pinpoint them to reach specific voters. The problem with this, according to former Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, is that “false and misleading messages may be disseminated in a way that does not allow people with conflicting information to counter those messages, because they won't see them.” Facebook already restricts targeting for industries with a history of discrimination, like housing. They should do the same with political ads.

Refuse service to anyone trying to disrupt the 2020 election. All businesses can refuse service to a person who violates their policies. Restaurants usually require patrons wear shoes and shirts. Facebook should require that users refrain from using the platform to disrupt the 2020 election. They can do this by implementing terms of service or acceptable usage policies that require users to follow certain rules about how Facebook can be used.

Stop the lies in political ads. Facebook should fact-check advertisements placed by politicians and political campaigns. In other words, it should hold these political ads to the same standards it applies to advertisements that are not placed by politicians. As Facebook employees said in an open letter to company leadership, “Misinformation shared by political advertisers has an outsized detrimental impact on our community.” If you or I lied in an advertisement on Facebook, it would immediately be taken down.

Better to think of this current boycott as a first step, and recognize that the worst negative consequences of platforms like Facebook are endemic to the system design, the billions in ad revenue generated by hijacking the circuitry of your brain to get you to keep scrolling, endlessly, sprouting data to harvest to sell to companies in turn to sell you tickets and sweaters and hats and vacations.

What else can we do?

Maybe break up Facebook, as has been suggested by, among others, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Or perhaps just regulate it like a utility? Maybe a campaign to get people to think of social media use the way we think of smoking?  At the very least, we know that people can be taught to be savvier about their information consumption.

And, as always, we as individuals can stop using Facebook. There are plenty of other places to find recipes and cat videos.

Corey Hill is a freelance journalist, fiction writer, and board member of the human rights organization Global Exchange. He is also a co-founder of Don’t Let Facebook ZUCK Up Our Democracy.

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