Facebook’s Follies

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Incompetence, Willful Blindness or the Profit Motive?

The killing of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15th, once again raised mea culpas from executives at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, among other social-networking companies. They were exposed as having helped facilitate the widespread distribution of videos of the killings.

Facebook livestreamed the gunman’s 17-minute videos and, as The Guardian reported, it kept it online for 6 hours and YouTube for 3 hours after the slaughters; it reported subsequently removing around 1.5 million videos of the killings. The company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said she identified 900 different variations of the Christchurch shooter’s original livestream.  The Guardian also reported that some sites posted the attacker’s full 74-page manifesto.

In the wake of mounting criticism about its role sustain on-going promotion of the attacks on the mosques, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg published an op ed in The Washington Post on March 30th that spoke to the company’s – and media-tech industries – inability to manage the social-network content that is helping foster white nationalist and separatist militancy culminating in killings.

Showing his desperation in the face of wide-spread criticism, Zuckerberg momentarily changed his long-held free-market, anti-regulation attitude and wrote:

I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.

From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

Floundering as to how to respond to a system out of control, Zuckerberg is throwing ideas at the wall hoping something sticks.  He’s calling for the creation of an independent “supreme court” to oversee content and for the global adoption of an EU-like General Data Protection Regulations.  On March 27th, the company instituted a ban on “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism on Facebook and Instagram”.

Many were shocked by the mass murders in Christchurchand the ways Facebook and other social-networking sites feasted on the events.  Sadly, it will likely not be the last killings that they help facilitate.

Forgotten by the media, one year ago, in April 2018, Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Congress in the wake of revelations that 87 million Facebook users had their privacy rights violated. Escorted by his $12 million lobbying team, the aw-shucks billionaire placated the legislators with high-minded odes of tech blather.

“Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring,” Zuckerberg opined.  He puffed on,“it’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation.”

Zuckerbergthen admitted that little of significance would happen, saying, “it will take some time to work through all of the changes we need to make, but I’m committed to getting it right.”  A year later, he stood in dumb disbelief as the Christchurch horror played out.

But wasn’t this the same Zuckerberg gee-wiz posture eight-months before he appeared in Congress when the riot and killing took place in the wake of the Charlottesville, VA,“Unite the Right” rally in August 2017?  Then he wrote, “There is no place for hate in our community.”  He then added, “that’s why we’ve always taken down any post that promotes or celebrates hate crimes or acts of terrorism – including what happened in Charlottesville.” Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Squarespace, PayPal, GoDaddy, YouTube and other online networks claimed that they suspended hundreds of users associated with the far-right.

The Facebook CEO failed to acknowledge that the Southern Poverty Law Center had provided it with a list of hate groups and that, as The Guardian reported, in July 2017 “at least 175 of those links remained active.”

These are but a few of the ever-growing number of questionable incidents that Facebook has been involved in during the last couple of years; they’ve had deeply disturbing consequence that the company has shrugged off.  In 2018, the New York Times broke the story that the company had retained aRepublican opposition-research firm, Definers Public Affairs, to discredit activist organizations, notably Color of Change that is part of Freedom From Facebook coalition, and the “liberal” philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. Zuckerberg denied any knowledge of the strategy, claiming he“learned about this reading the New York Times yesterday.” And then there is Facebook’s role in promoting “false news” during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Russia-Gate and the Cambridge-Analytic scandal that is still playing out.

Equally troubling, in February 2018, as the Times reported, a 19-year-old man who confessed to the killings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, had two accounts with Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary.  Classmates said that the killer’s lockers were filled with images of weaponry as well as the hats and bandannas he liked to wear to school. The killer reportedly wrote that he hated “jews, ni**ers, immigrants,” and talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks.

Facebook and the other social-network services are in a peculiarly American position – they are private companies that can freely distribute (almost) any and all content so long as they wish to or so long as they can make money from it.  They are not telecom networks, but rather content distribution platforms; they are more like Amazon and Walmart, aggregators of content, than the roadways and parking lots that facilitate transportation.  As such, online platforms do not need to comply with (however weak) net-neutrality requirements.  Thus, they face little federal regulation, only the oldest art of public shaming.

These companies are governed by the Communications Decency Act (CDA), adopted in 1996, and especially Section 230.  It protects online platform operators from defamation lawsuits, from any liability associated with user-generated content.  The statute states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cautions,Though there are important exceptions for certain criminal and intellectual property-based claims, CDA 230 creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish.”

In April 2018, Pres. Trump signed an act that revised Sec. 230.  It reconciled the Senate’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the House’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). It was ostensibly targeted at sex trafficking but is really intended to further criminalize all forms of commercial sex work.  The Justice Department conflated trafficking with sex work in its successful effort to close down the website backstage.com

Facebook is in free fall reflecting the fundamental contradictions of postmodern capitalism.  It is a private company providing a social service; it is a U.S. company in an increasingly globalized economy; and it is driven to maximize profits.

The Intercept undertook a covert operation that graphically exposed this contraction.  It used “white genocide conspiracy theory” as a pre-defined “detailed targeting” criterion and published two articles target 168,000 Facebook users.  They were defined as “people who have expressed an interest or like pages related to White genocide conspiracy theory.” It reveals that the paid promotion was approved by Facebook’s advertising wing.  It ends reminding readers that “after we contacted the company for comment, Facebook promptly deleted the targeting category, apologized, and said it should have never existed in the first place.”

Incompetence, willful blindness or the profit motive? – take your pick.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.