Coke Zero (Tolerance)

What do key corporate boycotts of Facebook and its associated platforms mean? And why do they matter? Stuart White explores.
Coke Zero (Tolerance)
Coke ZeroSource: Pixabay

More than 400 companies, including Coca-Cola, Adidas, Ford and Lego, have vowed to halt advertising on Facebook, in a growing protest over how it handles hate speech and other harmful content. The campaign, Stop Hate for Profit and launched two weeks ago takes aim at Facebook's advertising juggernaut, which accounted for more than 98% of the company's nearly $70 billion revenue last year. The stated goal is "to force [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg to address the effect that Facebook has had on our society." The advertising boycott is also extended to Facebook’s sister platform Instagram.

Microsoft was the first big name to publicly sign up and other corporations coming on board include retail chain Target, Dunkin' Donuts and automaker Volkswagen said "Hate and dangerous online misinformation should not go unchecked. We expect our advertising partners to reflect our values, and Volkswagen — as well as other companies — must hold them to the same standards we demand of ourselves”.

Facebook disputes the idea that it financially benefits from toxic content. "We have absolutely no incentive to tolerate hate speech," Nick Clegg, Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication, told CNN . "We don't like it, our users don't like it. Advertisers understandably don't like it." The company says it spends billions of dollars on safety and works with outside groups to review its policies, claiming nearly 90% of hate speech is removed by automated systems. "That's why we'll continue to redouble our efforts, because we have a zero-tolerance approach to hate speech. Unfortunately, zero tolerance doesn't mean zero occurrence.", said Clegg. He’s not alone. Apple CEO Tim Cook is all for this censorship, stating “ it's a sin to not ban certain people …We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division, and violence: You have no home here."

A whole lot of virtue signalling going on, to misquote Little Richard, but what’s it all about? Quite simply, it hinges on whether social media platforms are classified as tech companies or publishers and thereby hangs a huge global tale. The companies initially claimed the former but in a few test cases this was challenged and they were warned that they must take responsibility for anything and everything posted by their billions of followers in much the same way as a media CEO would be expected to take full responsibility for the content of their newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasts and so on. But the counter argument is that social media sites do not hire trained media experts, nor is it their responsibility to police everything posted by the public. Rather those posting should take personal responsibility for what they write and if they transgress publishing laws it is they who should face the consequences.

Add to that mix the concept of free speech versus censorship and you will see this is a very foggy area indeed. Consider this argument posted on the Do-Op (Difference of Opinion) site.

“This is a new era of communication. A 2018 survey showed that teenagers prefer conversing via social media platforms over talking on the phone at a rate of 3 to 1. Over 69% of American adults have social media accounts, and nearly all who do use it as a source of news. Social media is no longer a game played by a small niche of people; it is a primary form of communication.

However, social media differs from the rest of the above mentioned methods in a particularly crucial way. Twitter and Facebook users are subject to the whims of the companies’ employees who may censor any post or poster they choose.

If someone at Twitter disagrees with journalist Meghan Murphy’s statement that “men aren’t women,” they delete her account. If someone at Facebook feels that an excerpt from America’s Declaration of Independence constitutes hate speech, then they will delete that as well.

Instead of being the hubs of free speech that they should have been, social media companies have chosen to monitor, police, and censor their sites in a way that would be considered unthinkable for any other method of communication. Can you imagine being told that you could no longer make a call because the phone company disagreed with your politics?

This is the reality of social media. By selectively censoring and banning people from their sites, they have assumed control over a prominent means of modern communication. They have declared ownership of their customers’ words. And by doing so, they have also assumed the blame for each and every awful word spoken by their users.”

Thus far in America, social media companies have been shielded against repercussions for content posted on their sites by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects “interactive computer service(s)” from being treated as publishers, based on Congress’s initial findings that “the Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.”

But a lot has changed since 1998. Twitter is now openly banning people based on their political beliefs, something which is arguably prohibited by law in several U.S. states. YouTube and Google are censoring videos. Facebook is being accused not only of allowing “fake news,” but of knowingly creating it. These are no longer the impartial forums once envisioned by Congress.

In Europe in 2016, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (Google), and Microsoft signed a code of conduct with the EU requiring them to remove all instances of “hate speech” within 24 hours of their being reported. The EU was unsatisfied with the results, and so in 2017, they drew up a plan to force them to do this under penalty of law. Germany - home of VW (see above) jumped at the chance to get on board, imposing a fine of up to 50 million euro to transgressors. Virtue signalling or Teutonic totalitarianism?

Do-op again.

To allow such a significant aspect of modern communication to be monitored and censored by a handful of CEOs is to once again relegate significance to the “elite.” It is to create the kind of ideological echo chamber that free speech laws were specifically designed to prevent. Controversial opinions cannot be relegated to those in power, as great ideas most certainly are not. But these ideas will never be heard without free platforms to elevate those that hold them.

Some will speak falsehoods. Some will speak hate. Some will even speak “violence.” But the dangers of free speech are greatly outweighed by the consequences of censorship. There is no such thing as an “objective” censor; it is too difficult for any person or group to escape their own biases enough to discern between an opinion that is “wrong” and one that is simply “different.”

Social media companies are, or should be, the platform on which the average citizen stands. It’s time for them to start acting the part.

All censorship, by its very nature is subjective and here’s the other side of this coin. Should Coca Cola or VW control the thoughts and opinions of those who drink their sodas or drive their cars? And if they could, would that be a world you really want to inhabit?

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