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 weak response to hate speech, and a new 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.

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 fight 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 made the issue more urgent. 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. But this did not cover posts like Donald Trump’s message: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – allowed by Zuckerberg because it was “newsworthy”.

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.

Yes. Facebook thrives on extremist views, with its algorithms guiding users towards controversial content. Also, one man alone – Mark Zuckerberg – gets to decide what billions see on their social media feeds

You Decide

  1. Which is a better source of news – Facebook or a newspaper?

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.

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 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

Suppress
Use force to put an end to something.
Foment
Encourage or stimulate.
Parliamentary committee
A small group made up of MPs and members of the House of Lords to deal with particular issues.
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.
Algorithms
A set of rules followed in calculations, especially by a computer. Algorithms are used by social media sites to decide which posts users see, and in what order, every time they check their newsfeeds.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.