Dozens of celebrities began a social media account freeze yesterday to protest against the spread of “hate, propaganda and misinformation.”
Big names including Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian West, Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry announced they would not be posting any content on their social media pages for 24 hours.
In a tweet, Kardashian West stated: “I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation.
“Misinformation shared on social media has a serious impact on our elections and undermines our democracy,” she added.
The boycott is part of the #StopHateForProfit campaign, whose organisers have accused social media sites of not doing enough to combat hate speech and misinformation being shared on their sites.
The campaign focuses particularly on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, who critics have suggested “lag behind their competitors in working systematically to address hate and bigotry on their platform.”
Whilst companies like Twitter and Reddit have begun to take down and label content that is misleading or seen to be inciting violence, StopHateForProfit claim that Facebook and Instagram’s action has so far been “not at all at the scale needed for them to meaningfully decrease their harmful impact on society.”
In June, StopHateForProfit partnered with over 1,000 businesses who signed up to suspend all advertising on Facebook for 30 days.
This action saw Facebook make some policy adjustments, but will this latest boycott push them to go further?
What’s the problem?
Whilst other social media sites have taken significant steps to address hate speech and misinformation by labeling or removing certain posts, StopProfitForHate have accused Facebook of being reluctant to follow suit.
Criticising Facebook’s policy on removing content, campaigners have suggested that the platform’s definition of “calls to violence” or “threats of imminent harm” is currently only being applied to posts “in a very narrow sense,” meaning that many potentially harmful posts go unchecked.
Facebook has claimed that it has pioneered the use of artificial intelligence (AI) “to remove hateful content at scale,” but StopHateForProfit claim this action has not made a dent in the volume of hateful posts circulating on the site, and have also accused the platform of not being honest about the limitations of automated tools.
“Lofty statements about the effectiveness of Facebook’s AI tools are undermined by the fact that we do not know how much hate speech actually exists on the platform,” a statement on the campaign’s website read.
Furthermore, campaigners have criticised the platform’s “political exemption” rule, which allows posts from politicians that include misinformation or threats of violence, such as Donald Trump’s infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” post, to stay up.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that this rule exists as he believes people should receive the views of politicians “completely unfiltered.”
Ultimately, however, StopHateForProfit have said the problem with Facebook is not simply that its approach to calling out hate speech and misinformation has been woefully inadequate, but mainly that it has failed to address how its recommendation algorithms actively “push hate, violent conspiracy theories, and disinformation.”
Violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, racism, homophobia and climate denialism run rampant on the platform because Facebook’s algorithms recommend sites promoting these views to people whom they have worked out they might appeal to. Facebook themselves do not deny this.
What are #StopHateForProfit demanding?
StopHateForProfit have published a list of 10 “recommended next steps” for Facebook, that it says the company could take “immediately”.
These include submitting to to regular, third party, independent audits of identity-based hate and misinformation, seriously starting to find an remove groups and pages spreading hate and misinformation, adapting their algorithms to ensure they don’t amplify content from white supremacist, far-right and antisemitic groups, and enabling individuals facing severe hate and harassment to connect live with a Facebook employee, backed up by a team of experts who would conduct regular reviews of reported abuse.
These measures, the campaign group says, “are not sufficient, but they are a start.”
Could boycotts force Facebook’s hand?
In June, a 30-day advertising boycott from major brands including Coca-Cola, Ford and Adidas saw shares in Facebook fall dramatically. US media reported that Mark Zuckerberg had suffered a $7.2bn hit to his net worth.
Jen Says, CMO of the denim brand Levi’s, one of the brands who took part in the boycott, said:
“We are asking Facebook to commit to decisive change. We want to see meaningful progress towards ending the amplification of misinformation and hate speech and better addressing of political advertisements and content that contributes to voter suppression.”
98.5% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising, so keeping big brands happy is well within the platform’s interests. Unsurprisingly, when faced with such significant financial losses, Mark Zuckerberg responded to the June boycott by announcing a few changes to Facebook’s approach to addressing hate and misinformation.
He announced the creation of a senior role to oversee civil rights and established a dedicated team to study algorithmic racial bias. Furthermore, the platform publicly released their long-delayed civil rights audit that found that many of their policy decisions had led to “setbacks for civil rights.” Zuckerberg also promised that the site would be submitting to a new, independent audit, but the details of this are yet to be released.
Building on these developments, Zuckerberg also announced Facebook would be following Twitter’s lead and starting to label “potentially harmful” posts, even if they come from politicians.
According to StopHateForProfit, these changes will have “some incremental benefit” but much more radical action is required to truly address the harmful impact hate on Facebook is having on society, hence the need for organising a celebrity boycott this week.
The financial impact of this latest boycott for Zuckerberg and Co. is not yet known, but it is unlikely that it will inflict the same damage on revenue as the advertising boycott. If a 30-day boycott that caused shares to fall dramatically only led to Facebook making a few moderate changes, a 24-hour boycott from celebrities looks unlikely to bring about the deep policy overhaul StopHateForProfit argue is necessary.
Perhaps the sheer volume of negative press that will be generated for the platform by such high-profile boycotters will force Zuckerberg to take serious action. Based on previous evidence, however, this seems close to wishful thinking.
With a US election approaching that looks set once again to be seriously impacted by fake news, it is likely that more radical action will be required from campaigners committed to protecting democracy.