Jul 13, 2020 - Technology

Facebook's plan: Make nice, but don't give in

Illustration of a poster with the Facebook logo that says, "Keep calm and carry on".

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook last week took steadily intensifying heat from fleeing advertisers and boycott leaders and received a big thumbs-down from its own civil-rights auditors. Its response, essentially: We hear you, but we'll carry on.

The big picture: Early on in Facebook's rise, CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned to handle external challenges by offering limited concessions and soothing words, then charging forward without making fundamental changes.

Driving the news: Friday Bloomberg reported Facebook was weighing a temporary blackout on political ads right before the November election. That could give the social network a jump on reining in misinformation — but would hardly satisfy critics who have focused on Facebook's failure to curb hate speech or to moderate President Trump's violence-threatening tweets.

  • Facebook doesn't fact-check political ads and it lets political advertisers narrowly target people based on their location, interests and demographics. 
  • Last year, Google placed limits on such microtargeting, while Twitter got out of the political advertising game altogether.
  • Advocacy groups argue Facebook's permissive political ad policy encourages campaigns to spread misinformation and use advertising to suppress voting.

Yes, but: A pre-election political ad blackout wouldn't address the misinformation that floods social media through non-paid posts.

  • "Blacking out political ads is a solution in search of a problem. Political ads are now the *most monitored* content on Facebook, and are of little concern compared to the massive volume of organic electoral misinfo from groups & pages," tweeted former Facebook product manager James Barnes.
  • Political ads aren't even mentioned in the ad boycott organizers' list of 10 demands.

For the record: In a speech at Georgetown last fall, Zuckerberg said Facebook intended to place as much emphasis on freedom of speech as on protecting its users.

  • He described the company's two responsibilities: "to remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible."

What's next: Despite the ad boycott and strong criticism from independent auditors that the company had hired, there's no sign yet that Facebook intends to introduce the kinds of hate-speech limits critics are proposing.

  • Nor is there any sign Facebook will take action against President Trump, who is currently protected by the platform's pledge not to interfere with politicians' speech, even when it's arguably inciting violence.
  • Much at issue: A Trump tweet criticizing racial justice protesters in the wake of George Floyd's killing promised that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." He borrowed the phrase from a 1960s Miami police chief's threat against civil rights protesters.

Flashback: When Facebook introduced its now-ubiquitous news feed in 2006, many users hated it and flooded the company with complaints. Zuckerberg made some changes but mostly dug in his heels. The outrage dissipated, and users ended up turning the news feed into the center of their digital lives.

  • Zuckerberg has drawn on this experience in every crisis since, from Cambridge Analytica and election-interference scandals to charges of monopolistic behavior.

Where it stands: As the holder of a majority of the company's voting shares, Zuckerberg is Facebook's absolute monarch. A wide enough and long enough boycott would surely trouble him, but Facebook's base of ad clients is much broader than that of, say, a TV network.

  • Millions of small businesses and individual advertisers would have to join the campaign on top of the big names already participating before Facebook's bottom line would start to suffer.
  • In the meantime, expect Facebook to make small compromises and wait for the world's attention to move on.
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