Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall
Facebook’s moderators have called on advertisers to keep boycotting the site, over the way it deals with “hate speech,” but they really just want to stop Trump winning again.
Keen observers of the ins and outs of Silicon Valley’s complicated relationship with freedom of expression may remember that last month a host of big corporations, including Disney, Ford and Adidas, pulled their adverts from the site in the biggest boycott ever of its kind.
This was sparked by a campaign called Stop Hate for Profit set up by several US civil rights groups in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The group accuses Facebook of “profiteering from hate and misinformation” and has branded their policy on hate speech “vexing.” Now, as the month-long July boycott is due to end, some of Facebook’s own employees have urged companies to keep the pressure on their employer. Yes, Facebook’s own employees want the company to make less money to make themselves feel better.
I suppose it takes a certain kind of person to want to be a “moderator” and those people are not likely to be free speech minded. If the job itself is censoring things, then it stands to reason it would appeal to censorious people. Those with an ardent commitment to freedom of expression simply wouldn’t do it, as they don’t see it as their place to police speech, but obviously these moderators do, and they want more power.
In pursuit of these greater powers a number of present and former moderators have spoken to The Guardian to urge companies not to recommence advertising on Facebook. A moderator still working at the company told the paper: “When it comes to our mental health, we would feel much better if we could delete more. One of the stressing factors is that we have to leave on the platform things that we think are harmful and plain evil. A lot of stress comes from the fact that we have minorities among us, and we sometimes have to explain to them why something they know is hate speech can’t be deleted.”
The problem with “hate speech” of course is that it is, by its own definition, entirely subjective. Hate is an emotion and emotions are not rational, they cannot be legislated for and frequently cannot even be controlled by the person experiencing them, let alone by other people. This inevitably leads to a blurring of the lines where something that is “hateful” turns into “something I don’t like” which then simply becomes “anything I disagree with.”
It is no coincidence that this has happened during an election year. Much noise has been made about how Donald Trump used data gathered from Facebook to target voters in swing states during the 2016 election. They can talk about hate speech all they like, but another Trump victory is what they really fear. Twitter is already openly censoring the president’s tweets, citing them for “breaching guidelines” and the like; to Facebook’s credit, it has, thus far, resisted being quite so nakedly political. But in the current febrile climate, woke virtue signalling is reaching a critical point.
The issue facing both Facebook and Twitter is that, by policing what is and isn’t allowed on their platforms, they are fast behaving more like publishers. Previously their argument had been that they are not responsible for what is posted on their site in the same way that a phone company wouldn’t be held responsible for someone saying a racial slur down the phone line.
They are relying on the protection of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that shields them from being held liable for anything being published on their platform. Unsurprisingly, Trump has called for this rule to be repealed and even signed an executive order to curb some of its protections.
While Mark Zuckerberg himself has tried harder than Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to present Facebook as more politically neutral, even at one stage actively trying to hire conservatives to balance out the left-wing bias within the company, his staff, it seems, are not on board with this plan. Facebook employees have already staged a “walkout” over the way the company handled the president’s posts. This is what really betrays their intentions; it isn’t about morality, it is about winning.
Big tech and those who work in it seem to be becoming increasingly arrogant in their attitudes to those they disagree with. The tone of the moderators’ latest call for the advertising boycott displays their patrician outlook, which oscillates between the two poles of “we know what’s best for you” and “we can’t let these idiots read this.”
This also risks getting into the more sinister territory of believing that “wrong thinking” people should be denied goods and services. Even people who believe unpleasant things deserve to be able to buy products, once we start restricting what is advertised to certain people, how long is it before there are calls to actively stop them from buying the products at all?
Another element of the wrongheaded boycott is that it puts a financial barrier on virtue. Only corporate behemoths like Ford, Disney and Starbucks can afford to pull their advertising from Facebook, whereas small businesses cannot. If you already have the weight and brand recognition to be given the option of sponsoring sports teams and concert venues, then pulling adverts from Facebook will have a limited impact. If you own a small firm or a start-up, Facebook offers you an invaluable source of advertising with the added advantage of being targeted to maximise how effective it is.
What this boils down to is a further desire from the woke Left to police language and beliefs online and then on into wider society. Social media is in many ways akin to the old public square as a place for people to say what they believe about issues varying from the banal to the fundamental. The attempt by these enormous corporations to placate the vociferous and vocal online Left could be dismissed as pointless virtue-signalling, if it wasn’t contributing to a further chilling of conversation and debate.
Advertising gets a bad rap these days but that doesn’t stop it being an aspect of free speech. As a society we seem to have forgotten this, with many governments expanding bans first introduced on cigarette advertising to other areas such as food and fashion.
Zuckerberg should hold firm against the more censorious sectors of his company – it already has quite a wide-ranging definition of “hate speech” on its company website. From a purely selfish perspective, they need to resist the urge to pander to these leftist campaigners as any further policing of content surely places them in the realm of publisher, not platform. This would leave them open to a slew of defamation and libel suits that could potentially cripple the network. From a moral perspective he should hold firm, if he has any remaining commitment to freedom of expression.