Business goes where Governments fear to tread

It’s a funny old world.

Governments bang on about the unacceptable nature of some of the stuff that regularly appears on social media. They call on the platforms to do something about it and, immediately, a whole army of predictable voices rise up to claim this presents a terrible danger to free speech. Those elements truly living in a deluded bubble often go a great deal further, suggesting it is all part of a (usually) undisclosed plot by Governments to… know the rest.  You can fill in the dots without my help.

But just look what has been happening in the last week or so and listen to the silence.

Stop Hate for Profit

9 days ago an initiative called “Stop Hate For Profit” launched an appeal to advertisers, asking them to halt further expenditure on Facebook until the end of July. Why? Here are their own, unedited words

“From the monetization of hate speech to discrimination in their algorithms to the proliferation of voter suppression, to the silencing of Black voices, Facebook has refused to take responsibility for hate, bias, and discrimination growing on their platforms.”


Who are some of the moving forces within Stop Hate For Profit? The  NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League  (ADL) are two powerful and highly respectable US civil rights bodies and they have gathered about them several other heavyweight organizations as part of an impressively larger effort sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

So how are they doing?

Unilever (the largest spender on advertising in the world) has joined Ben & Jerry’s, Verizon and North Face in saying they are withholding their patronage. Today Coca-Cola joined the gang along with Honda and Hershey’s, the largest sweets manufacturer in the USA. According to some reports Twitter is being added to the list of boycotted companies and the period may extend beyond July.

Imagine the intellectual contortions going on in some people’s heads. On the one hand, if you believe in a free market economy in which private companies are at liberty to express their tastes and preferences in terms of how and where they spend their own advertising budgets then none of this is in the least bit worrisome or troubling. But on the other…

Not the arbiter of truth?

Only last month Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed Facebook won’t be the “arbiter of truth”.  This sort of slippery, political language hints at desperation.  It won’t wash. It won’t fool anyone. Everybody knows Plato cashed in his shares and left the company years ago, along with Leibniz and Sir Karl Popper.

Facebook is not conducting a philosophy seminar in Oxford. Facebook is a fully engaged actor. What it does shapes and affects outcomes on the rough hewn streets of our cities and beyond. Facebook cannot be neutral or Olympian when it comes to spreading stuff that kills people. It cannot ignore behaviour which causes injury.

You cannot hold yourself out as being concerned to make the world a better place and at the same time eschew interventions that will actually make the world a better place.

What people expect from Facebook can be stated in plain language.  Common decency. If that is just too difficult for the company’s present management to handle they should make way for a new set of brains and wiser hands.

Yes, the dangers are clear

The dangers of allowing companies to step in and insist on Facebook and others upping their game could threaten diversity as it drags social media platforms back to a comfortable centre.  I have to say, right now, I for one would welcome a bit of that. I am fed up with being forced to worry about edge cases when so much in the middle is wrong.  If anything, what Unilever and others have done is remind everybody why we need internet regulation to be based firmly on clearly stated, public policies which are enforceable by courts not advertisers’ whimsy.

Meanwhile let’s see if Facebook decides if it can, after all, get into a bit of “arbiting”.