Opinion: Users, advertisers and society need a better Facebook. Here's how we fix it
Since we launched the Stop Hate for Profit campaign a few weeks ago, we’ve been inspired by the response by companies, users and civil society. On the other hand, we’ve been thoroughly unimpressed by Facebook’s response, as evidenced by our meeting with their leadership last week, and the obfuscation, disingenuous claims, and misleading solutions in their response.
To date, more than 1,000 companies have pledged to pause their advertising on Facebook platforms, and more come on every day. We’re particularly heartened by agency partners who have counseled their clients to stand on the right side of history.
While our allies in corporate America have drawn headlines, behind the scenes we’ve been thrilled to see the rallying of nonprofits, unions, advocacy groups and the public. America’s civil society organizations—the ones who represent the communities most impacted by the deadly consequences of unchecked hate on Facebook—have found common cause.
Still, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize the individual most responsible for this campaign’s success: Mark Zuckerberg. Although Facebook has done substantial good in connecting the world, his refusal to acknowledge harmful policies and act with any sense of urgency to fix them is why we’re here today.
Movements that grow this quickly don’t happen by accident. For years, story after story has warned of Facebook’s impact on democracy and civil society. In fact, Facebook knows they’re feeding divisiveness and hate because they’ve studied it internally. When Facebook’s leaders realized acting on recommendations made by their own team to stop this damage would slow growth and profits, they shelved them. The indifference is startling and scary.
It’s not just outsiders making this point. Facebook can’t convince many of its own people that the tech giant is on the right side of this issue. Even before we launched this movement, hundreds of Facebook’s employees staged a virtual walk-out last month. One of the engineers at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) asked Zuckerberg to quit as CEO at an employee town hall. Nearly three dozen of the company’s earliest employees wrote an open letter accusing him of instituting content moderation policies that are “incoherent,” “cowardly,” and a “betrayal of the ideals Facebook claims.” More than 140 CZI-funded researchers signed an open letter addressing Facebook’s unwillingness to address hate and misinformation. Facebook’s own Chief Product Officer, Christopher Cox—who left Facebook over the direction of the company in early 2019—criticized Facebook’s refusal to fact-check false political ads in late 2019, before rejoining the company this spring.
We clearly struck a nerve by stating the obvious aloud, and thanks to advertisers big and small—from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses and mom-and-pop outfits—we have gotten Facebook’s attention. Our coalition sat down with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Chris Cox and other Facebook executives earlier this week. Considering Facebook’s well-documented playbook for dealing with the failures of its platform, described years ago by The New York Times as “delay, deny, and deflect,” we had low expectations going into the meeting.
Facebook lived up to those expectations. Instead of responding to the demands of dozens of the platform’s largest advertisers that have joined the #StopHateForProfit ad pause, the company’s leaders offered the same old defense of white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamophobic and other hateful content. It’s the same set of strategies, talking points, and excuses used after the white supremacist violence in places like Charlottesville and Christchurch, Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, and the genocide in Myanmar. It’s hard, they tell us. We’re trying.
But while perfection is hard, improvement is easy. Facebook’s problems are primarily not a result of technological limitations. They are a result of deliberate choices. Or as folks say in the tech world: the viral amplification and monetization of hate on Facebook is a feature, not a bug. It’s an integral part of the current business model, which relies on the lucrative engagement that divisive and hateful content generates. And it’s a result of a willful refusal to acknowledge the well-documented harms of that content. We need Facebook to make better choices, including:
• Shut down hateful and conspiratorial groups. This isn’t complicated. Purge Facebook of groups that consistently spread vitriolic hate, racism, antisemitism and violent conspiracies. Mark Zuckerberg claimed Facebook does this at his 2018 Congressional testimony, but we all know otherwise.
• Reform of disinformation policies. While election interference is the issue everyone knows, Facebook’s refusal to seriously address climate-change denial, Holocaust denial and other disinformation efforts are also hurting our society.
• Live support for harassment victims. Behind every data point is a person. Facebook’s platform needs to connect victims of online abuse with real people to provide immediate support.
Facebook could easily address these issues if they wanted to. We see that in their agreement to one of our 10 short-term needs, which is the creation of a stronger civil rights infrastructure. We are pleased that Facebook agreed to recruit for a senior position focused on civil rights. This can’t come soon enough after a long-delayed and damning independent civil rights audit released on Wednesday labeled their policy decisions on content a “tremendous setback.” While we would prefer the position to be higher in the organization chart, we believe that this position can help Facebook improve if a strong candidate is selected and sufficiently empowered. We look forward to making similar progress on the other short-term needs that we identified.
Still, if their latest response is any indicator, we have a long way to go. They say that they will conduct an audit, but they don’t acknowledge that it is designed only to cover their narrow terms of service instead of all the content that advertisers and society are concerned about. They say they don’t recommend problematic content, but our analysts are still being served with recommendations for violent conspiracy and hateful groups today. They say that they have strong policies against misrepresentations that would directly interfere with the vote, without mentioning that political ads can lie about virtually anything else.
It’s clear their plan is to wait us all out. Mark Zuckerberg admitted as much himself. According to media reports last week, he told employees behind closed doors that he expects “all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.”
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get it. This isn’t about revenue. It’s about the harm his business is doing to society, that he can fix. We have been clear from the beginning that we are not trying to Facebook's business. Rather, we are trying to show them the wide societal agreement that Facebook needs to change. As more voices join the chorus of advertisers, users and civil rights groups, we are confident that Mark, Sheryl and Chris will take the commonsense steps that will allow Facebook to continue to thrive while decreasing hate, harassment and misinformation.
Users, advertisers and society overall need a better Facebook. Together, we can Stop Hate for Profit.