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With Facebook, it’s always too little too late
The company’s role in Kenosha civil unrest is the latest example.
It’s gut-wrenching to think that the catalyst for the events I’m about to report was another senseless act of police violence against Black bodies who look like mine.
This time, as you know, it was Jacob Blake — a 29-year-old Black man, now wounded and paralyzed after being shot in the back at close range late last month by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Peaceful protests ensued, bolstered by a courageous NBA and WBNA player strike and displays of solidarity from other major professional sports leagues and star athletes, to express opposition to the ideas and instruments of white supremacy and systemic racism that emboldens the police state to kill first and explain why they didn’t demonstrate restraint later.
White supremacy also fueled the violent thugs that made up the Kenosha Guard, a self-proclaimed militia group, who issued a “call to arms” in advance of one of those protests. Three people would end up shot — two of them murdered — at the hands of a teenage vigilante to who drove to Kenosha from out of state with a weapon of war in tow to restore the right’s bloodthirsty brand of “law and order.”
The Kenosha Guard set up shop on Facebook, in a group that we now know, thanks to reporting from BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Mac, was flagged a whopping 455 times only for moderators to decide it didn’t violate company policies. (This represented two-thirds of all event reports that day.)
Its page violated new rules that Facebook introduced last week that labeled militia and QAnon groups as “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” and CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company erred in not taking down the Kenosha Guard page and event sooner. He attributed the mistake to content moderators who misinterpreted the new rules.
Kenosha is the latest crescendo in a maddening series of summer crises that have besieged Facebook. The militia page stayed up nine hours after the protest shooting took place. A source familiar with how harmful content is adjudicated at Facebook told The Supercreator that the process starts with employees escalating flagged content from third-party moderators to a policy team led by Monika Bickert. If the takedown requires Zuckerberg’s approval, he typically consults with a brain trust that includes COO Sheryl Sandberg, head of global affairs Nick Clegg, communications chief John Pinette, VP of global policy Joel Kaplan and diversity chief Maxine Williams. Then Zuckerberg makes the final call.
His response almost always feels too little too late. And these insufficient responses have real-world consequences that disproportionately impact anyone who’s not a wealthy straight white man: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and poor folks who rely on social apps to get their news in an ecosystem transitioning away from ad-supported media to premium subscriptions.
Facebook will tell you it takes these issues seriously. So much so that they’ve made enormous investments in artificial intelligence to catch harmful content across more languages and cultural contexts with as little supervision as possible. In July, the company published a list of actions it has taken to “stop hate.” It commissioned, funded and published a civil rights audit that, according to Sandberg, “exposed [Facebook’s] shortcomings” and outlined concrete areas of improvement. And on the election integrity front, Facebook has tripled the size of its teams working on safety and security issues to include more than 35,000 people. It has created rapid response centers, which operated for all of the US caucuses and primaries. It claims to have made significant improvements to reduce the spread of misinformation and provide more transparency around ads about social issues, elections or politics. Last month, Facebook launched a comprehensive Voter Information Center and on Tuesday, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced a $300 million commitment to the Center for Tech and Civic Life and Center for Election Innovation & Research to promote “safe and reliable voting in states and localities” amid the pandemic.
But it’s difficult to reconcile these PR-friendly blips with what seems like Zuckerberg’s overarching unwillingness to truly grasp Facebook’s role in mobilizing what Eric Levitz at New York calls the support of “anti-democratic sentiments among GOP voters — especially those who resent nonwhites’ political power.” Levitz cites a new paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels that suggests “many Republican voters value ‘keeping America great’ more than they value democracy — and, by ‘keeping America great,’ such voters typically mean ‘keeping America’s power structure white.’” (According to 2018 data from Statista, daily Facebook usage among white people is eight and 11 percent higher than Hispanic and Black users.)
No wonder is it then that Donald Trump would resort to racist rhetoric like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to gin up his base. In one breath, Zuckerberg tells Fox News his company shouldn’t be the “arbiter of truth” in a thinly veiled criticism of Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s lies about mail-in voting. In the next, he’s expressing deep concern with addressing “the inequality in how justice is served.” What’s clear is that you can count on the so-called president’s dog whistles to always be louder than Zuckerberg’s reactionary platitudes.
And as I write this, Trump is serving up yet another nonsensical claim in an attempt to delegitimize peaceful protesters and strike fear in his base. It started on Monday night in an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham when Trump claimed Joe Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” and that Biden supporters flew in on a plane to raise hell at last week’s Republican National Convention. Trump repeated the claim the next day, amending it to say that the plane was flying from DC to someplace else. “The story, on its face makes no sense,” Judd Legum wrote in his newsletter, Popular Information. “If you were a part of a secret conspiracy theory to disrupt a political convention, why would you dress conspicuously in ‘black uniforms’ and take over an entire plane?”
Trump, with an assist from Senator Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, is alleged to have picked up this conspiracy theory from — you guessed it — Facebook.
NBC News reporter Ben Collins tweeted the similarities between Trump and Paul’s claims and the Facebook conspiracy that went viral earlier this summer. (Legum reports that the rumor was circulated so widely, Idaho police responded with Facebook post assuring people it was “not accurate” and the Idaho Statesman debunked the conspiracy. That didn’t stop similar theories from circulating in at least 41 cities, even though no actual threat from Antifa ever materialized.)
Facebook didn’t create racism and isn’t the only social app that enables disinformation at scale — but it’s the biggest app and the jagged enforcement of its own policies leaves it vulnerable to the unsparing critiques it’s often on the receiving end of. Zuckerberg’s credulous obsession with “free expression” is so worthy in his eyes that who cares if it has normalized what Legum calls “the conspiracy spin cycle?”
This can be explained by Zuckerberg’s righteous belief that the remedy to bad speech is more speech, no matter the harm it may cause. “Ultimately, accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open,” Zuckerberg wrote earlier this summer. My response: ”Spoken like someone who’s never had to endure the trauma of seeing their people’s humanity constantly questioned or stolen ‘out in the open.’"
But despite the intense public scrutiny, Facebook is valued at more than $841 billion today. Mark Zuckerberg added $25 billion dollars to his net worth during mid-March and mid-May of this year alone. As of June, nearly 1.8 billion humans used Facebook every day, representing a 12 percent increase from the previous year. And Facebook has doubled down on growing its ad inventory, a move that will generate more revenue even though brands say it puts their reputation at risk: "They’re prioritizing maximizing inventory at the expense of making it brand safe,” Erica Patrick, VP of paid social at MediaHub said to Max Willens at Digiday. (A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on its advertisers’ brand safety concerns.) This signals to Zuckerberg that he can get away with incremental changes that look like meaningful progress but further entrench harmful content and behaviors into our national discourse.
Meanwhile, as usual, it’s creators — especially those from the marginalized communities I referenced earlier — who are left with the short end of the stick. As I said in last week’s podcast episode, I understand the attraction to social apps like Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. They’re fun, convenient and packed with features that make it easier than ever to [quote] go viral. Small businesses love the relatively inexpensive ability to reach their dream customers with targeted messaging. And Facebook has done an incredible job of making its products feel indispensable even though it’s totally possible to do meaningful work and experience a fulfilling life without them. And, as evidenced by Zuckerberg’s aforementioned multimillion contribution with his wife, their founders donate lots of money to causes we care about, which makes them look like benevolent do-gooders.
But their business models discourage creative ownership and require creators to fill newsfeeds with media for tech companies like Facebook to run ads against while returning most of the economic, social and political value it generates to their shareholders and investors. All of this occurs in a moment where health care, housing and higher education is five times more expensive for millennials than they were for our parents; steady, stable jobs have become an endangered species; wages have been flat for nearly four decades; white millennials are five times more likely to receive an inheritance than non-white millennials even though millennials of color make up 45 percent of the millennial population, which suggests wealth inequality stands to get worse before it gets better. The pandemic has only accelerated these discouraging trends.
Look all around us and you’ll see no shortage of digital tools that enable creativity at scale. But there are few ways to sustainably monetize the value of your creative work without corporate infrastructure, private equity or inherited wealth. And that leaves creative professionals both with few options to get noticed and paid for the brilliance they bring to the world and beholden to a handful of tech companies that want all of the power but none of the accountability. Don’t you worry though because Mark Zuckerberg “deeply cares” — even if the business he founded 16 years ago rarely behaves like it.