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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Companies boycotting Facebook are virtue signalling – but the implications are serious

Anti-racism protests that have torn through America since the police’s murder of George Floyd have put President Trump under the spotlight – his authoritarianism, use of racist dogwhistles and increasingly hysterical threats. But, perhaps unexpectedly, there’s been a growing focus on Twitter and Facebook too.

In the last week of May, the platforms vaulted into the spotlight when both refused to acquiesce to demands to remove two of Trump’s posts that violated their standards. The incident became a touchpoint for snowballing anger about the platform’s haphazard speech regulation policies and has culminated in a campaign called Stop Hate for Profit. Launched by advocacy groups the Anti-Defamation League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Color Of Change, the campaign calls on businesses to suspend advertising on Facebook for the month of July, ostensibly to put pressure on the company to take more action on hate speech. Companies including Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and the North Face have signed up.

At first brush, this might appear a classic case of virtue signalling and bandwagoning on the part of the firms – much like the nominal endorsement of the BLM movement that many have been critiqued for. But under closer inspection, it presents a disturbing dynamic. It’s bad enough that Facebook, itself a vociferous profit-hungry conglomerate, is tasked with the job of regulating speech on a platform that has become, for better or worse, a global public square, but now ice-cream and outdoor clothing companies are also piling on to demand an increasingly draconian approach to freedom of expression on the platform. (YouTube has been targeted in a similar way before.)

There are lots of noble reasons to want less hate speech on platforms, of course. But Facebook has proven its method to be sloppy, biased and heavily dictated by (surprise!) corporate and government interests. Calling for it to take more action is merely hastening the skid down the slippery slope.

“Tech companies have zero competence – no specialised knowledge, no ethical competence – to make judgments about what’s true and false historically and politically; what’s ethical, what’s moral,” says Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden leaks and who has covered social media and free speech issues for years. “Just because they succeeded in developing a technology, doesn’t mean they qualified to be arbiters of speech. It’s a total mismatch between their demonstrated expertise and what they’re being asked to do.”

The cruel irony is that stricter speech controls will almost certainly end up harming people affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. A Cornell University study found that the posts of black people are already more likely to be classified as hate speech than posts by white people. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has already begun taking action on posts that support the BLM movement. For example, one prominent BLM account noted that a diagram illustrating “how to tear down a colonialist statue” had been repeatedly removed by the platform. An infographic comparing the amount of training police forces from different countries receive (highlighting that American forces receive the least) has also been targeted. The platform has repeatedly affixed the post with a ‘fact-checking notice’ (incorrectly) denouncing it as misinformation.   

Although at present, the Black Lives Matter movement is being superficially embraced by the corporate media and mainstream politicians, in 2017, Republican senators were pushing to designate BLM a hate group, partly because of its ‘hatred for the police’. Given that Facebook closely adheres to government guidelines in designating hate speech, a different turn of events could have seen the platform taking a much more hardline approach to BLM content today.

Prominent BLM accounts that promote leftist politics are plagued by the threat of suspension even so. Some make provisions for this by asking followers to follow a back-up account in the event that the main account is shut down. Investigative journalists and human rights activists have also repeatedly complained about being excluded from both Twitter and Facebook on baseless grounds.

This week at Twitter, a tranche of leaked and hacked police documents (the “Blue Leaks”) have been removed from the site. Not only has the account responsible for sharing the documents, DDOSecrets, been permanently suspended, but any links to its website have also been blocked and retroactively expunged from the site. The social platform has cited its policy of not allowing hacked material to be posted, but DDOSecrets founder Emma Best has pointed out that a lot of the information was leaked and that by removing it, Twitter is stifling whistleblowers.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In terms of content removal, Twitter and Facebook are both highly receptive to what the US government and its allies want. In the past, Facebook has admitted to removing high-ranking officials simply because they hail from countries that the US has sanctioned.

Facebook is a private company, and is therefore allowed to regulate its platform as it sees fit. It’s a business, and is beholden to an obligation to create profit by its shareholders. Failure to do so would mean breaking a legal contract. But at its scale, and status as one of the de facto ideas markets online, we shouldn’t so willingly cede any attempt at objectivity in the midst of blinkered calls to “do more”.

We should also be instinctively wary of any action gleefully embraced by corporations. As New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat writes, the fact that corporations are outflanking politicians in their professed commitment to the BLM movement at the moment, is, perhaps, “the tell”. “It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts,” Douthat writes.

The same applies to corporations’ support of increased policing of online speech; they wouldn’t embrace anything that fundamentally challenged the capitalist structures undergirding their bottom lines. Clamours for content removal need to move beyond what content should be removed – and consider who is doing the removing. Right now, that’s Facebook and Twitter themselves, led by shareholders, advertisers and governments. While we might applaud the removal of characters like Katie Hopkins from Twitter, anyone who holds ideas threatening to any of the above should be wary of being so cavalier. History shows that they’ll come for you next.

Whatever problems social media might pose, “the solution can’t possibly be to give Facebook and Google more power over our political debate,” says Greenwald. “That is not the answer to whatever problem you’re looking to solve.”