Politicians and advertisers turn on Facebook

Coining it: Mark Zuckerberg’s company made $17.4 billion from ads in three months. © Getty

Is Facebook bad for democracy? Advertisers are boycotting the social media site over its feeble response to hate speech, and a new parliamentary report is demanding immediate action.

Friday was not a good day for Mark Zuckerberg. Watching the latest stock-market reports, the Facebook boss saw the value of his company fall by £45 billion. His own fortune was down nearly £6 billion. Suddenly, he was no longer the third-richest person in the world: Bernard Arnault, head of Louis Vuitton, had overtaken him.

Facebook’s share price tumbled as the result of a boycott by over 100 advertisers, ranging from Ben & Jerry’s to Levi’s. Responding to an appeal by the Stop Hate For Profit pressure group, they are removing all their ads for a month.

Facebook, they say, is not doing enough to combat hate speech. A statement by Ben & Jerry’s demanded that it “stop its platforms from being used to divide our nation, suppress voters, foment and fan the flames of racism and violence, and undermine our democracy”.

Politicians too are demanding change. Yesterday, a British parliamentary committee led by Lord Puttnam called for action to end “a pandemic of misinformation” by making social media companies responsible for everything on their platforms.

The coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the US presidential election have lent urgency to the issue. Lord Puttnam argued that false rumours about Covid-19 had caused deaths. Posts by white supremacists and interference in the presidential contest by countries such as Russia are major worries.

Two weeks ago, Facebook announced steps to deal with these problems. Ads from foreign state media will be banned during the US election, and all ads must show who paid for them. Users can block political ads, and information on how to register as a voter will be prominently displayed

But this did not cover posts like Donald Trump’s message: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – widely seen as an incitement to violence, but allowed by Zuckerberg because it was “newsworthy”.

On Friday, responding to pressure, Zuckerberg said such posts would be labelled as violating Facebook’s policies. But critics were still not satisfied. “Zuckerberg’s new changes don’t go nearly far enough,” said a spokesman for the Colour of Change movement.

“Labelling ‘newsworthy’ content so the public can judge for themselves is not a new policy. It’s more of the same, and it won’t cut it.”

Is Facebook bad for democracy?

Calling the shots

No. Facebook actually helps democracy, by giving a voice to small political parties which would otherwise struggle to reach voters. But most people use Facebook and Instagram – which Zuckerberg’s company also owns – purely for fun, and to communicate with friends and family. If they want political guidance, they will still go to the traditional media – newspapers, TV, and radio.

Yes. In America, at least, a huge number of people get their news from Facebook: one study puts the figure at 44%. Facebook also thrives on extremist views, with its algorithms guiding users towards controversial content. That clearly undermines democracy – but so does the fact that one man, Mark Zuckerberg, can decide what billions do or do not see on their social media feeds.

You Decide

  1. Which is a better source of news – Facebook or a newspaper?
  2. Should Facebook ban all political advertising?

Activities

  1. Design an ad for Ben & Jerry’s to defend your decision to boycott Facebook. Remember it needs to be attention-grabbing and visual.
  2. Imagine that you are Mark Zuckerberg. Write a speech arguing that Facebook is great for democracy. Deliver it to an adult and see how they respond.

Some People Say...

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy […] is education.”

Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd president of USA

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Lord Puttnam’s committee recommends giving Ofcom, the regulator in charge of TV and radio, the power to fine digital companies up to 4% of their global turnover for hosting harmful content. Online platforms should be forced to show how their algorithms work, and an independent ombudsman should be appointed to deal with complaints from individuals. Political parties that run misleading ads should face fines of up to £500,000 or 4% of their campaign budget, whichever is greater.
What do we not know?
Whether government regulation would hinder Facebook or help it. Some believe that new laws would make it more complicated and expensive for tech firms to operate and, thus, deter smaller companies from setting up in competition with the giants. The regulations would have to be negotiated with Facebook, allowing it to lobby for rules more favourable to it than to others. And if its customers complained that they were being censored, Facebook could say that it was just following the law.

Word Watch

Bernard Arnault
A French businessman and art collector who owns luxury brands including Marc Jacobs and DKNY. In January, he briefly overtook Jeff Bezos to become the richest person in the world.
Foment
Encourage or stimulate. It derives from a Latin verb meaning “to heat”.
Lord Puttnam
David Puttnam made his name as the Oscar-winning producer of films such as Chariots of Fire. He has been a member of the House of Lords since 1997.
Interference
Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, is believed to have used misleading Facebook posts in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Register
In most US states, voters have to be registered at least two weeks before an election. But critics say that complications in the process deter many people. A study in 2012 estimated that 51 million people eligible to vote were not registered – a quarter of the total electorate.

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