It performs exceedingly well”: Facebook and the light-touch approach towards hate

While Twitter was quick to to add a warning to Trump’s recent “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided roll over, citing a commitment to “free expression”. It’s a move which staff saw as capitulation. So, what’s behind the company’s reluctance to clamp down?

It takes a lot to speak out against your boss, but Facebook employees have reached the end of their tether. 

When Donald Trump threatened that when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to Black Lives Matter protests across his various social media platforms, the executives of the Silicon Valley giants had a difficult decision to make. Would they accept the threat as just the latest bizarre outburst of a widely-mocked politician, or would they take a stand?

While Twitter decided to add a warning to Trump’s tweets, saying that it incited violence, and ended up drawing the president’s ire themselves, Mark Zuckerberg decided to lay down. 

Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric,” he wrote in a Facebook post. But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression. I know many people are upset that we’ve left the President’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.”

His staff saw it as a capitulation. While many of them are proponents of free speech, they saw that it had limits when being used, in their minds, to stoke violence and perpetuate a racial divide across America. They saw Zuckerberg’s acknowledgement of police brutality as doubly damning: it wasn’t that he couldn’t see the issues, but he seemingly refused to take action to stop it happening.

Giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy,” wrote Facebook employee Andrew Crow. I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.” 

I don’t know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable,” another Facebook staffer, Jason Stirman, wrote. I’m not alone inside of FB. There isn’t a neutral position on racism.” (A number of Facebook employees did not respond to requests to speak for this story.)

But Facebook’s inaction shouldn’t come as a surprise. The hands-off, light-touch approach is one that has, until recently, been the norm for all the big tech giants.

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Platforms have, for many years now, taken a stance on content moderation that presumes that the most neutral route is to do nothing,” says Becca Lewis, who researches the role and reach of the alt-right on social media at Stanford University. They have continually promoted the idea that leaving the most amount of content up at any given time is the most healthy approach for fostering democratic discussion.”

However, that idea – that sunlight is the great cleanser – isn’t necessarily true. In an environment driven by advertisements and attention, when any given post may spread disinformation or hate speech, it has long been clear that the platform’s stances are insufficient and counterproductive,” says Lewis.

When confronted with a list of more than 700 far-right pages on Facebook spreading fake news, posting content seen more than half a billion times in three months, Facebook took down just a third of the pages.

Recognising the issues, and cajoled along by negative media coverage of the festering issues on their platforms, a number of social networks have made changes – including Twitter recently calling out Donald Trump’s tweet as an incitement to violence.

Facebook itself has made changes to its approach, and continues to publicly state it cares about tackling these issues, which is why Zuckerberg’s response to the Trump post has been particularly unconscionable,” adds Lewis.

Others are stronger in their criticism. Facebook has been a massive, massive disappointment over the last few weeks,” says Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. I don’t think I ever thought I’d see the day when I’d be applauding Twitter for doing something while Facebook has essentially abandoned its content standards when it comes to prominent people and abandoned its promise to remove violent content from the site.”

It matters not just because it shifts the conversation and makes acceptable the kinds of prejudice and hate that can negatively impact on minorities. It also has real-world ramifications. A 2019 study by researchers at Warwick University linked an increase in Twitter activity by Donald Trump with a 38% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Online hate can transform into offline violence.

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So what’s preventing Facebook from taking proactive measures to tamp down hate speech on its platform? For one thing, it’s likely that there aren’t enough minority voices within the company to point out the problems before they snowball. Just 3.8% of Facebook employees are Black.

But it’s more than that. According to some analysts, it’s the same reason Trump continues to spew out scattergun opinions on social media – the craven pursuit of popularity, money and numbers.

One of the key reasons Facebook and other platforms don’t want to tackle the issue of far-right content is that it performs exceedingly well in terms of engagement metrics and therefore generates a decent amount of revenue for them,” says Steven Buckley, associate lecturer at the University of the West of England.

There’s also a fear that any action taken against Trump or his supporters could result in the site being put on full blast through a tweet, which could stir up sentiment against the platform and tank the stock price. It’s the same reason Trump’s support staff seem unwilling to stand up to the president’s wilder actions. Beirich also thinks that Facebook’s placating of Trump and America’s conservative wing is an attempt to avoid antitrust investigations into the site – which Trump has threatened Twitter with since it started censoring his posts.

Zuckerberg has gone further than anyone else by talking to Trump on the phone, meeting with conservatives, having staff reach out to conservative types, and letting publications filled with falsehoods like Breitbart doing fact-checking on the site,” says Beirich. It’s a political move to placate conservative concerns that are total bullshit.”

As for Facebook themselves, they’ve seemingly been doing very little. We recognise the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” a Facebook spokesperson said. We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”

The company declined to answer questions about why they appear so out of step with other social media platforms that recognise hate speech and incitement to violence, and why the site has been slow to take action on hate speech and affiliated groups operating on Facebook for years.

It’s also a situation Beirich doesn’t see changing soon – with potentially catastrophic implications, considering the scale of the platform across the world.

Given Facebook has 2.5 billion users, and is the main provider of news in many parts of the world, to see them not taking these things seriously is literally perverting politics,” she says.


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