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.

More articles by:

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.

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-hold is Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under