Mark Zuckerberg and Noam Chomsky are strange bedfellows in this political moment, but they found themselves on the same side this week in resisting so-called cancel culture. While Zuckerberg, under pressure from a growing advertiser boycott, refused to make changes to Facebook’s policies on misinformation and hate speech, Chomsky joined luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, J.K. Rowling, and Gloria Steinem in signing “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published by Harper’s Magazine.
The two separate incidents illustrate how cultural change is reshaping both journalism and social media platforms, as gatekeepers old and new confront their long-ignored blind spots. The Harper’s letter reaches for more nuance than Zuckerberg’s position on speech but broadly occupies the same territory. The letter seeks the answer to intolerance and extremism in the “free exchange of information and ideas” (rather than what the 153 signatories see as a constriction of speech), alluding to how employers such as the New York Times have reacted to public outcry about editorial decisions.
Meanwhile, other publishing platforms with far more reach have few, if any, boundaries for acceptable speech. On social media, politicians—presidents, even—can encourage the violent suppression of demonstrations without censure.
In fact, Facebook has hardly narrowed the boundaries of debate at all. Conspiracy theories and divisive speech continue to circulate on the platform; political advertising, which increasingly takes place on Facebook, advances blatant lies without fear of fact-checking; and damaging and misleading ideas about critical issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are frequently posted without tangible consequences.
The concern over what Facebook has framed as a “free speech issue” is now impinging on company revenues. Advertisers including Unilever, Verizon, LEGO, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pepsi, and Target have joined the boycott, organized by groups including NAACP, Color of Change, and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as Free Press. The demands of the campaign extend to structural reforms inside Facebook, including the appointment of a human rights expert to advise the company, regular external audits of the platform for identity-based discrimination and bias, and the adoption of a number of other policies. Although the campaign targets racist hate speech on all social platforms, Facebook has become the focus of the story after the company repeatedly refused to flag or remove posts from President Donald Trump that stoked racial tensions and called for shootings during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Facebook’s chief executive, Zuckerberg; its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg; and its head of communications, the former British deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg, met the boycott campaign organizers via Zoom on Tuesday, but to little effect. Free Press’s Jessica Gonzalez, who attended the Zoom meeting, said it yielded only “spin” from Facebook: “I’m deeply disappointed that Facebook still refuses to hold itself accountable to its users, its advertisers and society at large. I was hoping to see deep humility and reflection about the outsized role that Facebook plays in shaping beliefs, opinions and behavior, and the many harms it’s caused and facilitated in real life. Instead we saw more dialogue and no action,” said Gonzalez in a statement.
News organizations sit uncomfortably on the jagged edge of this debate. One of the striking aspects of the #StopHateForProfit campaign is that, while many news organizations have celebrated the discomfort of Facebook, not many of them have actually joined the boycott. In fact, media properties such as HuffPost, Yahoo, and TechCrunch are still running promotional ads on the social platform, according to the data in Facebook’s advertising library, despite being owned by Verizon, one of the companies on the boycott roster.
This is a hard case for news companies. Very few have the scale or reach that would enable them to forgo the distribution power of Facebook, and that means they’re stuck paying to promote their own articles. In other words, for many publishers, advertising on Facebook is not optional. Many have pointed out that the current Facebook boycotts are taking place at a time when advertisers are not planning on spending, and this is a way to burnish their own brands at relatively little detriment to revenue. However, the equation for the news business is different. Advertising on Facebook is like paying trucks to take your product to newsstands or paying carriage costs for cable television. It is access to the market more than it is brand promotion.
One organization taking a different stance is New Zealand’s largest news group, Stuff, which told staff in a leaked internal memo that it would cease all activity on Facebook until further notice, in line with the current ad boycott. Editor in chief Patrick Crewdson was quoted in a report from website The Spinoff saying, “We’ve all seen examples of social ills on Facebook that aren’t compatible with trust—for instance the spreading of fake news and hate speech. Stuff itself is frequently frustrated by other sites posing as our website on Facebook.” Stuff is the largest employer of journalists in New Zealand and the fifth-largest site on the internet there. It is also, like all publishers, experiencing an unprecedented drop in advertising revenues.
Facebook’s perceived lack of trust might be damaging to news publishers, but the company itself has become ever more interwoven into the fabric of the news business, especially through direct grants to journalism organizations and schemes to help newsrooms develop new products. The Stuff precedent raises many interesting ethical issues for publishers about how they should relate to Facebook. Should they keep accepting Facebook money for journalism support while spending their own resources on Facebook promotion of their content? You will read a great deal about the Facebook boycott movement in the pages of many news organizations that themselves remain locked into the broader ecosystem that tolerates material their subscribers might find abhorrent. Stuff says its boycott is an experiment. Publishers around the world will be interested to see the results.Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.