SINGAPORE: Facebook announced on Friday (Jun 26) that it will begin labelling posts that break its rules but are newsworthy – even those of President Donald Trump.
For free speech advocates, Facebook’s about-face is progress. It is finally taking action but resisting calls to censor polititians.
American voters will continue to see Trump’s ugliest utterances, along with Facebook’s labels that call him out.
And that will help any of us who have not already made up our minds decide whether we can take another four years.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MONTH MAKES
Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout of work when the platform did nothing about a Trump post about protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May.
Trump had posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, echoing threats of police against civil rights protesters in the 1960s.
Twitter flagged the tweet with a warning label. Facebook said the corresponding post did not qualify as incitement that violates its rules, although CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised to review guidelines.
Then came the boycott.
On Jun 17, the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation that has long stood against anti-Semitism, partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and other civil rights groups.
They launched a campaign, “Stop Hate for Profit”, asking advertisers to boycott Facebook and Instagram during July.
Activists criticised Facebook for the “vast proliferation of hate” on its platforms and for allowing what they consider incitement to violence against protesters.
Their campaign calls for removal of private groups peddling hate, misinformation or conspiracies. It asks Facebook to provide support for individual victims of hate and harassment and to submit to reports from independent auditors on action taken.
Popular American brands joined the boycott campaign, including Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, The North Face and REI.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook emailed advertisers saying, "We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure".
But on Friday, Unilever said it is going further by suspending advertising on Facebook platforms and Twitter for the rest of 2020. The British-Dutch conglomerate is one of the world’s largest advertisers. It spent US$42 million last year on Facebook ads for its brands, including Dove and Lipton.
Facebook’s stock price plunged – over 8 per cent by Friday’s close, representing US$56 billion of market value.
Suddenly Facebook’s policy review was done. Zuckerberg announced it will start labelling content that violates policies. He also said it will ban ads that claim that immigrants or racial or religious groups threaten the physical safety or health of others.
THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT
Does anyone remember that Tesla, Mozilla and other advertisers boycotted Facebook in April 2018?
Revelations emerged that it failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from exploiting Facebook users’ data. The political consulting firm targeted propaganda to voters during the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.
Some users even initiated a “Delete Facebook” campaign.
But the efforts fizzled out as advertisers and users alike eventually returned.
Facebook’s digital advertising network is second only to Google’s. They need Facebook as much as it needs them because the platform can micro-target advertising to billions of users.
Users found it would be difficult to move their whole network to another social media platform, and few choices were available besides Instagram – which Facebook owns.
Today, Facebook stock is worth some 50 per cent more than it was after the 2018 revelations.
Some industry observers predict that the new boycott’s impact on the bottom line would be likewise negligible. Facebook has some 8 million advertisers and generated US$70 billion in revenue in 2019. Investor Roger McNamee pointed out that no advertiser represents even 1 per cent of its revenue.
But this boycott demands Facebook’s response.
The 2018 boycott was about data privacy and allowing election interference with uncertain effects. Outrage about those issues can’t compare to the reckoning with racism in America and around the world since Floyd’s death.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets for a month. Polls found a majority of Americans support the protests and disapprove of the president’s response. Brands, incensed at seeing their ads appear next to nasty content, see an opportunity to take a stand.
Even if Facebook is confident that most advertisers will return and users will stay, it is in the spotlight. It can’t risk appearing unresponsive during a watershed moment.
Participants in the boycott deserve praise for using their brands’ clout, even if pausing ads for a month is a modest gesture at a convenient time, with ad budgets cut during the pandemic.
FACEBOOK’S COMPROMISE: A LITTLE BIT FOR EVERYONE
This time, Facebook has appeared to relent by giving boycotters something: Labels.
But it is holding on to its espoused free speech principles, and may even avoid Trump’s fury.
Facebook is free to censor users under US law, but Zuckerberg has long stressed the need even for falsehoods and offensive views to circulate, including those of elected officials.
He has a point. Keeping up the looting-shooting post, along with countless others, serves the public interest. We can debate, support or condemn it, and use it to judge the source.
Zuckerberg stands by the time-honoured maxim of free expression: The answer to noxious speech is almost always more speech, not censorship. Whether he supports that principle because controversy attracts eyeballs or because he sincerely believes it, he shouldn’t abandon it lightly.
Putting a label on a rule-breaking post is an ideal compromise. The post circulates along with more speech – the platform’s warning.
And Facebook still reserves the right to take down the most extreme content. Zuckerberg said on Friday that posts determined to “lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote” won’t be tolerated, even if made by politicians.
Some have suggested that Facebook’s fear of alienating Trump and his ultra-loyal base explains Facebook’s previous reluctance to touch Trump’s posts. The stakes are high: Trump could take his posts to Parler, a Twitter-like platform gaining traction among conservatives.
Deleting his posts might provoke Trump to repeat threats of regulation. By contrast, a few more warning flags may not please the president, but he and his campaign can work with them.
His supporters may see those flags as further evidence that their straight-talking hero is telling it like it is, and proof of Big Tech’s bias against him.
Labels don’t go far enough for the Stop Hate campaign. Among their updated recommendations, they want Facebook to prohibit falsehoods in political ads, which it has previously resisted.
Nor are labels enough for other brands that have paused social media advertising since Zuckerberg’s announcement: Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Pepsi, Ford and Microsoft. The campaigners hope more global brands are next.
On Monday, Facebook went a bit further, agreeing to the independent audits that the boycott demanded and a ban on groups that are part of the far-right “boogaloo” movement.
With the boycott growing, more measures will probably be necessary — but, free speech advocates hope, not aggressive censorship.
As the day approaches when voters decide the president’s political fate, social media should allow us to continue to see him for who he is through his offensive outpourings on their platforms.
Dr Mark Cenite teaches communication law at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. He is Associate Dean (Undergraduate Education) of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University.