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OP-ED: Good intentions, poor judgments

  • Published at 02:13 pm July 17th, 2020
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Does Facebook have a future?

A unique business model and the giant we know as Facebook is now ready for its coveted leap -- into the self-proclaimed “fifth estate.” The Facebook company has in the past been at the receiving end of backlashes several times -- for a string of controversies dating back years and involving user privacy, objectionable content, and misinformation; yet, it has continued to grow its massive rolodex of advertisers whose money has powered the platform.

The sheer scale and prominence of the recent boycott has forced Facebook to finally reckon with issues and policies that have been scrutinized by both the public and law-makers for years. But the damage to the company, while certainly not fatal, may, at last, prove irreparable.

Today, the Facebook company is bleeding revenue as a growing list of companies warns they’ll stop advertising on the platform as part of a boycott campaign over the social media giant’s handling of political misinformation and hate speech, and its permissive stance on President Donald Trump’s posts.

The recent campaign is the most forceful and coordinated repudiation of Facebook to date, borne out of the intersection of two trends: Companies -- particularly those courting a younger customer base -- are eager to publicly position themselves as supporters of social justice causes like LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter.

The advertising boycott has arrived amidst renewed focus on the way social media companies handle content, including racist speech and conspiracy theories, in the wake of events surrounding George Floyd, a black man who was killed by the police.

Only last week, MarketWatch had speculated on the benefits for the corporations, which had taken on the monster entity Facebook at this time.

“There is a perfect storm of corporate responsibility during coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, and a need to contain costs during a recession,” John Marcinuk, head of marketing at Blue Fountain Media, told the site. “Whether you’re spending a dime or $20 million on a platform, if you have a stand to take, now is the time to do it.”

Facebook is not so young anymore

At the same time, Facebook has finally shed its pro-feminist status. As it has aged, newer social media sites have peeled away younger people amid mounting controversies, and its image has reportedly been increasingly tarnished by how people use -- and are allowed to use -- the platform.

While still the most-used social media platform with some 2 billion users globally, a torrent of surveys has documented the flattening of Facebook’s growth curve as it loses share, particularly among crucial younger US consumers, to newer and more fashionable sites like Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and TikTok. The platform reportedly lost 15 million users between 2017 and 2019, according to a study last year by Edison Research.

“The survey didn’t specifically ask: ‘Why are you using Facebook less?’ or ‘Why have you stopped using Facebook?’ among those who say that they have. There’s tons of other information out there.” Edison President Larry Rosin had shared: “There’s conjecture that Facebook has become more popular among older people, and whether that’s affected younger people.”

Like it or not, complicating its public image were a series of missteps that were, at least in part, of their own making.

The site will forever be connected with the Russian campaign to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election, which prompted a larger cultural examination of the power of social media. And its initial dismissal of the scheme when it was exposed cost it, with both the public and law-makers, who have since called to break up the company amid investigations by the Justice Department and Congress.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive officer, has been hauled in front of law-makers several times in the last few years and questioned during a series of appearances about controversies and policies, including the platform’s involvement in and its effect on elections and voting. The latest such appearance was announced recently, and will address anti-trust issues before the US House Judiciary Committee near the end of the month.

And the company’s failure to protect millions of users’ private data from collection by the third-party political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica in 2018 soured many users. The site that same year took high-profile criticism over the presentation of its trending topics section, which at times featured posts from questionable sources and forced it to re-imagine how it was handling news.

However, underlying that controversy was a neutral stance the company adopted in its approach to political content, in part because leaders reportedly felt that the removal of right-wing messages that accounted for much of the objectionable material would make this appear as if Facebook was disproportionately targeting Republican posts.

Hands off

Despite employing legions of content moderators, Facebook has taken a largely hands-off approach to moderation, particularly when it comes to political speech. It does not fact-check political advertisements or posts from prominent politicians -- a decision Democrats argue benefits the right.

In a speech last year, Mark Zuckerberg touted the company’s commitment to “free expression” and called the platform’s services a “fifth estate” that allows individuals to share their views.

The decision had the effect of heightening an association in the public eye between Facebook and right-wing causes.

Obviously, that had led to attacks initiated last year from the progressive end of the political spectrum that condemned the company for allowing users to traffic widely in conspiracy theories and share fake news at a dizzying speed without moderation. Hate speech has festered on the platform, particularly in private groups that are harder to moderate.

The US former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren led a blistering criticism of the company and its leaders, with public appeals last year during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to hold Facebook accountable for its decision not to regulate political speech.

“They’ve decided to let political figures lie to you -- even about Facebook itself -- while their executives and their investors get even richer off the ads containing these lies,” Warren wrote on Twitter. “Once again, we’re seeing Facebook throw its hands up to battling misinformation in the political discourse, because when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit.”

To illustrate her point, Warren ran an ad with intentionally false information, alleging that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Trump for re-election. It was not flagged by the site’s moderators.

A decline in reputation

The steady drip of disclosures and accusations has coincided with a tumbling of public opinion that saw Facebook record the biggest decline in reputation of any corporation in America, according to an annual survey that was released last year by The Harris Poll.

But none of that seemed to affect the company’s bottom line with advertisers who recognized that its reach was continuing to extend across the globe and into older demographics.

So, without that, the company that generates some 98% of its nearly $71 billion in revenue from ads, has had little incentive to reconsider its behaviour.

The boycott campaign had gained widespread attention in mid-June when Patagonia, REI, and North Face -- outdoors companies that have made values-based consumerism part of their brands -- joined the effort. Some of the companies involved -- Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Luluemon, and Vans -- have younger, progressive customer bases, or at least, present themselves that way.

It’s been joined by more mainstream marketing giants like Ford Motor Co, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Pfizer. Now, 250 companies have signed on, according to a running count gathered by the Anti-Defamation League, with some companies pausing marketing efforts on other social media platforms, like Twitter, as well.

Inside the US, the coalition of civil rights groups including the ADL and the NAACP is spearheading the campaign, which has been dubbed “Stop Hate for Profit.” The effort, perhaps ironically, spread across social media with a hashtag, rapidly becoming a cause celebre.

Companies are taking varied approaches to the campaign. Some are pausing advertising for the month of July, while others have announced a suspension through the end of the year.

It’s not about whether the boycott will meaningfully impact the company’s bottom line -- more than 8 million entities advertise on Facebook, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in April -- but investors are taking notice. Facebook stock slid last week after Unilever, one of the biggest advertisers in the world, said it would stop running ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter through the end of the year, citing a “polarized election period” and noting that “continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society.”

Breathless headlines earlier this week had noted that the company had lost $60 billion in market share in just two days as a result of the actions.

Many companies that have pulled ads from the platform have referenced Facebook’s approach to hate speech and misleading or fake content.

The chief marketing officer of Levi Strauss & Co said in a blog post about the company’s decision to stop its Facebook advertising that Facebook’s failure to stem hate speech and misinformation “fuels racism and violence and also has the potential to threaten our democracy and the integrity of our elections.”

The Clorox Co said it was pausing Facebook spending because it feels “compelled to take action against hate speech.” And chocolate manufacturer Hershey’s said it was joining the boycotts after conversations with Facebook earlier in June about its handling of hate speech failed to produce results.

“Despite repeated assertions by Facebook to take action, we have not seen meaningful change,” Hershey’s said. Just last month, the company again saw controversy over President Donald Trump’s posts about mail-in ballots and fraud. While Twitter decided to label the posts as misleading, Facebook determined that they did not violate its policies.

Facebook also declined to take action on a widely-decried post from Trump that said: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” referring to the widespread protests over the death of Floyd. Twitter, on the other hand, hid that post for glorifying violence.

The Trump connection

The positions have led to speculation about Trump’s relations with Zuckerberg, whose company has been able to steer itself quite clear of the types of threats of regulation or investigation that the president has levied against tech companies like Amazon.

Reports in recent days hint of a solstice between the two on the handling of Trump’s inflammatory social media messages that has sparked a crisis of confidence among the company’s employees.

Now, Facebook has responded to the boycott defensively. It said it has invested billions of dollars into technology and employees that moderate content, and pointed out that it has banned 250 white supremacist organizations from both Facebook and Instagram.

But the company also admitted that work remains to be done, starting with a series of policy tweaks, when it took its first tepid steps toward publicly disavowing controversial posts from the president or his supporters.

Zuckerberg last week had announced that Facebook would remove posts that contained false information about voting and would create a new label for content that is “newsworthy” but that otherwise violates its policies. And he explicitly said that no politician would be exempt. Facebook also committed to banning a broader range of hateful content in ads, Mark Zuckerberg said. On Monday, the company agreed to an outside audit by the Media Rating Council.

And while it appears to be yielding to those who say it does not do enough to limit hateful content, stop the spread of misinformation, or fact-check political posts, it is now also coming under fire from those on the right whom it was initially reluctant to alienate and who increasingly say the company censors free speech.

But without further action on hate speech, it is “starting down a long slippery slope to being irrelevant,” said David Jones, a top advertising executive of NYT, and also a founding member of Facebook’s client council, a group of marketing executives who advise the company.

“Their intentions are good, but their judgment is poor,” he told the paper.

And that is the absolute truth. Good judgment has always come from experience. Conversely, experience emerges out of bad judgment. 

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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