by Ted Lewis and Tracy Rosenberg. Originally printed in the SF Examiner
Facebook looms over our coming elections, and not in a good way. The giant media company has tremendous power and influence — and a bad track record.
In 2016, Facebook was successfully used as part of multi-faceted election interference campaign. Called to account by Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Russian ad buys and other efforts had little electoral impact in 2016, but the company later admitted that disinformation had reached 150 million Facebook and Instagram users in the United States.
The 2020 elections are already underway and protecting them now means more than deciding which candidates to support or pushing for ballot measures we believe in. This time, trust in our elections — the beating heart of our democracy – is at risk.
That is why protesting Facebook’s irresponsible policies is so urgent.
As a global media platform with billions of users, Facebook has the terrifying power to make or break the integrity of our elections. And in the near term are the only ones who can prevent the platform from being used to disrupt our elections — and elections around the world.
And while the Russian use of Facebook to interfere in the 2016 US elections is the most well-documented case of the company’s facilitation of efforts to sow discord, divisiveness, and disinformation, it is certainly not the only one.
In 2018, Facebook conceded its platform had been used to spread hate speech and disinformation that incited violence in Myanmar. The company commissioned a report about its role in human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, which stated that “Facebook has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm, and posts have been linked to offline violence.” Again in 2019, Facebook was used to amplify hate speech, harassment, and calls for violence in India against caste, religious, gender and queer minorities. The authors of a recent report by Equality Labs warn that without urgent intervention, hate speech on Facebook in India could trigger large-scale communal violence in that country.
Here in the US we must make sure Facebook does not again become a megaphone for disinformation and hate speech during the 2020 election.
But Facebook CEO Zuckerberg has made it clear that won’t be easy. Last October he announced the company would allow politicians and political parties to openly lie in their advertisements – meaning that Facebook now holds paid political advertisements to a lower standard than all others.
The time has surely come for Facebook’s monopoly to be broken up, but that is not going to happen before November 2020. So in the meantime it is up to us to pressure them directly. Corporations are susceptible to mass public pressure, and Facebook is no different. They don’t want their brand to be tarnished or to lose advertisers.
We have to start somewhere and conveniently, Facebook headquarters is in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there’s a long tradition of pressuring companies for change—whether to stop Gap and Nike from using sweatshop labor or convince Starbucks to buy coffee from Fair Trade farmers.
That’s why, on January 9, we’re kicking off a campaign that brings together human rights groups, media advocacy organizations, corporate campaigners and fed-up Facebook users to adopt the policies recommended by Facebook’s own employees in this public letter and to implement policies that discourage online hate, such as those recommended by Change the Terms.
Locally, we’ll be protesting outside of Facebook’s Menlo Park corporate headquarters under the banner, “Save Our Democracy: Protest Facebook.” Online, we’ll be “blacking out” Facebook on January 9 by replacing our Facebook cover and profile photos with a completely black box.
Some people say we should just abandon Facebook once and for all. But we’re not willing to cede a communications network that reaches billions of people to the unfettered practices of a corporation that cares more about its profits than about our democracy. Please join us in this fight.
Ted Lewis is the human rights director of Global Exchange. Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance.