Opinion and Editorial

Facebook's hour of reckoning

Lhendup G Bhutia
Filed on July 5, 2020


Zuckerberg's point so far has been that Facebook should not police political speech since it is already highly scrutinised.

Facebook is no stranger to controversies. For years it has been accused of doing little to counter misinformation, abuse, privacy breaches and even election interferences, the criticism becoming particularly sharpened after the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. But none of this has had any impact on Facebook's growth. It has continued to grow both in membership and profits year on year.

But there is a move now to hurt the social media giant where it hurts. Over 500 of some of the biggest corporations, on the call of some civil rights groups in the US, are currently carrying out an advertising boycott of the platform. These include Unilever, Coca-Cola, Verizon, Hershey, Starbucks and a number other big ad spenders. Facebook executives have been trying to placate, arranging daily calls with ad firms and bringing in new rules. But none of these have so far been deemed enough. It appears Facebook is going through its worst crisis.

It is facing an advertising boycott and taking a reputation hit at a time when corporate groups are being pushed to take tough stands. Internally too, Facebook employees, many of who openly rebelled against founder Mark Zuckerberg over his handling of US President Donald Trump's posts some weeks ago, are reported to be using the boycott to push for change in the way it handles contentious topics.

The call to boycott the platform first came a few weeks ago when a coalition of civil rights and left-wing groups came to form what they call Stop Hate for Profit. Soon, high-profile allies joined in. According to reports, these include actors, supermodels, politicians and even Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. The couple apparently called up CEOs of some of the platform's biggest ad buyers and pushed them to join the boycott.

The changes being demanded in regulating political speech on the platform, as some have pointed out, are deliberately opaque. The Wall Street Journal in an opinion piece points out, 'Facebook is being told to have its enforcers root out political speech and artistic expression based on deliberately opaque criteria. The activists also want Facebook to use algorithms to more closely surveil "private groups" as well as remove any that focus on 'climate denialism'. 'Watch out if you debate climate projections in what you thought was a private forum. They also want Facebook to fact-check speech by politicians, but don't expect claims consistent with officially sanctioned social-justice ideology to face any scrutiny.'

The current boycott is part of a larger struggle going on to control the public square of online opinion. As the election nears and protests and riots take place in the US, social media platforms find themselves increasingly being pushed to take sides. Twitter, for instance, began putting 'fact checking' labels, most famously on some of Trump's tweets. The online message board Reddit recently banned a 'subreddit' linked to the US president and the Amazon-streaming platform Twitch temporarily banned a Trump campaign account a few days ago over breaking rules.

Facebook finds itself torn between two competing ideologies. Those on the right complain the platform is too censorious, those on the left want more speech regulation.

Zuckerberg's point so far has been that Facebook should not police political speech since it is already highly scrutinised. He has argued that people should be able to see what politicians say, even when their claims are false or objectionable. This issue came to the fore about a month ago when after riots broke out in the US, Trump tweeted that 'thugs are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd. when the looting starts, the shooting starts.' While Twitter put a warning label over the tweet starting a row between the White House and the platform, Facebook decided to, amidst much criticism, leave the post up.

But Zuckerberg has somewhat begun to buckle under the pressure of the boycott. The platform has announced it will label posts which breach its rules, but this hasn't satisfied critics.

What will worry the platform, as the boycott drags on, is the hit it will take to its reputation. -Open magazine 


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