The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) is an NGO that has been a fixed and venerable , even sedate, part of the online child protection scene for many years. Its permanent home is in Washington DC but for a while it was actually based in the UK. I was on its Advisory Council and attended several of their events both in the USA and elsewhere. They even awarded me a prize in recognition of the work I do for online child safety. That was nice.
For some time FOSI’s annual gig in DC was a unique occasion. The first-ever sort of online child safety “trade show”. People from all over the world would flock to it. Maybe they still do. I haven’t been for ages and I no longer have any connection with FOSI.
One thing you could never accuse FOSI of being is radical or invested in any way in making life difficult for online businesses. In that light you could have knocked me down with a feather when, today, I saw a press release from FOSI announcing two things.
Meta (Facebook) has been expelled from FOSI. I say “expelled”. Actually it is “suspended”. Apparently Meta is on probation for 18 months. They can then reapply. Presumably if they have been on their best behaviour they might be readmitted to the club. Watch this space.
FOSI has also resigned from Facebook’s (laughably named) Safety Advisory Board.
Both parts of the FOSI announcement are astonishing, the former because it doubtless means FOSI will be losing a big chunk of cash and the latter because FOSI were one of the founding members of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board back in (I think) 2008/9.
Pretty sure that means there is now only one survivor left on the Board from those early days, the UK’s Childnet International. Maybe their conscience will finally be stirred and they’ll be the next to go. Maybe every child protection body which has links to Meta will be forced to review their continued association with the company.
Orchestrating a campaign of bad-mouthing Tik Tok
The FOSI press release does not go into any detail. Cryptically we are told
“Questions were raised over the recent reports of a campaign of disinformation around online safety issues that stoked unwarranted fears among students, teachers and parents. These concerns instigated a special review by the Board as per FOSI’s bylaws, to assess whether (Meta’s) actions align with (FOSI’s) mission of working to make the online world a safer place for kids and families. One of the core tenets of FOSI is to combat misinformation to help educate and inform parents and policymakers.”
“Facebook paid PR firm to malign Tik Tok.”
To spice it up most papers added the rather delicious but probably unnecessary detail that the firm Meta hired, modestly calling itself “Targeted Victory”, is a firm that is favoured by the Republican Party…..
Alarmed at Tik Tok’s growth at their expense it seems Meta set Targeted Victory to work. And they were none too scrupulous about it.
For example, despite the fact that something called the “slap a teacher challenge” originated on Facebook, Targeted Victory allegedly pushed Meta’s mission by promoting news pieces that blamed TikTok for hazardous internet phenomena like, er, “the slap a teacher challenge.”
And Targeted Victory arranged for Op-eds and letters to editors of local newspapers including the Denver Post and Des Moines Register. These letters voiced concerns about China “deliberately gathering behavioral data on our children” .
The PR firm did a lot more than that for Mr Zuckerberg but I guess the really obvious point is, on top of the huge amounts Big Tech spends on directly lobbying politicians and civil servants, stuff like this is also going on and it will never show up under the heading of “lobbying” . But it can be no less deadly in its political impact. As Vanity Fair put it, Meta resorted to a “fearmongering campaign” and that is exactly why they have been kicked out of FOSI.
Facebook are not backing off or apologising. They even tried to make their actions look like they were selflessly performing a public service. Their spokesperson said
“we believe all platforms, including TikTok, should face a level of scrutiny consistent with their growing success.”
Incidentally that last link contains additional very interesting detail about Targeted Victory’s staff musings ( sorry, at X thousand dollars per hour we call it “strategizing”). Here’s some of what they came up with
“While Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat especially as a foreign owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using,” a director at Targeted Victory wrote in an email about the campaign’s messaging.
Employees even imagine possible headlines for coverage, such as “From dances to danger: how TikTok has become the most harmful social media space for kids.”
Children’s groups in particular and civil society organizations in general can never compete with this kind of thing, nor would they want to, but we musn’t get too downhearted. Nobody could now confuse Mark Zuckerberg with Mother Theresa. He’s just another businessman who will fight low and dirty whenever he feels the need.
I wonder how that meshes with “Project Amplify”, last year’s plan to promote stories which show Facebook in a good light and “distance themselves from scandals”.
Here’s a tip. Free. If you don’t want any stories to appear in the media linking you with scandals, don’t engage in scandalous behaviour. Works every time.