Celebrities boycott social media for a day

Thumbs down: Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio (among other protestors)

Are celebrities right to boycott social media? Some big names turned off Facebook and Instagram yesterday to protest against fake news, but many say they are hitting the wrong target.

Yesterday, a Who’s Who of celebrities — including Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio — participated in a 24-hour boycott of Facebook and Instagram.

“I can't sit by and stay silent,” explained Kardashian West, who has 188 million Instagram followers and makes up to $500,000 per sponsored post, "while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation.”

The boycott was organised by Stop Hate For Profit, a coalition of non-profit organisations that wants social media companies to remove false and inflammatory material from their websites.

The campaign previously convened an advertising boycott, in which over 1,000 companies withdrew their advertising from Facebook in July. Amid the negative publicity, the tech giant's shares slipped by 8.3% and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a $7.6bn blow to his personal fortune, though both soon shot back up.

Perhaps to prevent a similar storm, Twitter this week announced a US Election Hub team to label misinformation.

For its supporters, the celebrity exodus strikes a symbolic blow against the corrosion of a civil society, especially as it comes from those who economically benefit from social media.

It comes at a stormy time for democracy as fake news threatens to warp people’s views. Social media has provided fertile ground for extreme and fraudulent content. One 2018 MIT study found that fake news spreads six times faster on Twitter than on traditional news media. “I believe,” said comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, “that our pluralistic democracies are on a precipice… and the role of social media could be determinant.”

As social media supplants journalism – a 2019 Ofcom report found that 49% in Britain now get their news from social media – some argue that owners should be required to act like publishers, selecting and editing content, so that their users can rely on them to provide truthful information.

Others argue that the boycotters seek to shut down free speech. Social media, they say, is essentially an amplification of human gossip. Controlling what people write on Facebook or Twitter is no less totalitarian than restricting what people can say to each other in private.

There remains the issue of troll farms, where groups intentionally abuse social media to achieve particular political objectives. Many believe the responsibility for eliminating such groups should lie with lawmakers, not corporations.

“If we were starting from scratch,” wrote Zuckerberg himself last year, “we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgements alone.”

By asking Facebook to regulate its networks, the boycotters are effectively calling for an unelected 36-year old entrepreneur to exert even more power over our lives — which would itself be a corrosion of democracy.

So, are celebrities right to boycott social media?

Silent treatment

Naturally, some proclaim. Democracy is being undermined by a raft of lies and hate. In magnifying extreme voices and spreading fake news, social media bears a significant part of the blame. Those who control social media companies have a duty to moderate the information that appears on their platforms — especially as politicians are among those seeking to exploit them for their own ends.

Absolutely not, declare others. By calling for tech CEOs to police their networks, the celebrities are ceding the very democracy they wish to defend to unelected entrepreneurs, who represent the interests of their companies rather than society at large. They should instead channel their complaints through elected politicians – democracy’s problems should be resolved through democratic means.

You Decide

  1. Can an opinion ever be unbiased?
  2. Is silence ever as powerful as speech?

Activities

  1. In groups of three, choose a company or product that you believe should be boycotted and why. Present your reasoning to the rest of the class — and discuss the similarities and differences between your choices.
  2. Write a letter to your local MP arguing for new regulations to be placed on social media, giving specific reasons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

Some People Say...

“The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Garry Kasparov, Russian chess champion and human rights activist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Boycott have a long history, predating the word itself: the first recorded instance is a 1774 set of sanctions in Philadelphia against the British Empire. Some have achieved remarkable successes. Rosa Parks’ 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott led directly to desegregation of buses the following year. Since the late 20th century, they have often been used to attract attention to unethical business practices, with targets including Nestlé, Nike and Amazon.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns the effectiveness of boycotts. The July 2020 Facebook boycott attracted significant publicity but did not dent the company’s ad revenue nor prompt a change of policy. And, paradoxically, previous boycotts of these very same tech companies found supporters actually using their products to generate support for their cause. Publicity can also backfire — a 2012 boycott against USA fried chicken chain Chick-fil-A for its CEO’s anti-gay marriage beliefs saw the restaurant’s sales rise by 12 per cent after it was endorsed by then-presidential candidate Mick Huckabee.

Word Watch

Boycott
The act of abstaining as a form of protest. It is named after Charles Boycott, the agent of 19th-century English landowner in Ireland who was successfully boycotted after refusing to lower rents.
Platforms
In Digital technology, an online business that facilitates interactions between suppliers and consumers.
Propaganda
Biased or misleading information used to promote a particular political cause. Of Latin origin, the word gained currency in the 17th century when Pope Gregory XIII used it when establishing a group of cardinals to spread Catholic doctrine in non-Christian lands.
Misinformation
False or inaccurate information, shared regardless of motive. The different term “disinformation” covers information intended to mislead.
Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook’s co-founder, chairman and CEO and controlling shareholder, Zuckerberg has a net worth of £97.8 billion and has an irremovable position in the company.
Exodus
Hebrew term meaning ‘departure from Egypt,’ used to describe the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery. Unlike the celebrities, the Hebrews did not travel back.
Publishers
Although there is no legal difference between a “publisher” and a “platform”, the former term indicates a responsibility for the company to refine what it publishes.
Gossip
From an Old English term ‘godsibb’, meaning godparent, which over the centuries came to mean chatter and rumour.
Totalitarian
Requiring complete subservience to the state or other power, from the Italian for ‘totally’.
Troll farms
A group of people hired to covertly influence political opinion and attack critics, often by spreading propagandist information on social media using their own personal accounts.

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