When James Azar wanted to find out what kind of content Facebook was sending out to its users, he enlisted several researchers to create accounts on the social media platform. They all posed as young people from 18 to 24 years old, in major large cities in America, each with clearly defined political interests. Then they sat back to see what sort of political content Facebook would provide each of them.
What they got was a heavily partisan view of the world, with little or no attempt to curb hate speech, Azar, a cyber security consultant based in Alpharetta, said about the study conducted two years ago.
“Once you become intertwined with one set of opinions, that’s all you saw. And those opinions don’t have to come from real people, they don’t have to come from real websites because to the social media search engines, they aren’t really discerning that. It could be made up by the Chinese, the Iranian or North Korea governments. It just has to agree with the general browsing perspective of that user. And that’s where social media has gone off the rails.”
In an effort to curb extremism on the popular website, the Anti-Defamation League formed a coalition this summer of more than a half a dozen civil liberties organizations to develop a month-long advertiser boycott of Facebook.
The campaign called “Stop Hate for Profit” was launched June 17 with an ad in the Los Angeles Times that accused Facebook of “amplifying the messages of white supremacists, permitting incitement to violence and failing to disrupt bad actors using the platform to do harm.”
The ADL has tried to work with Facebook for years, particularly in an effort to end the company’s role in Holocaust denial, but has little to show for it. In announcing the boycott, the organization’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said that his patience is at an end.
“We hope this campaign finally shows Facebook how much their users and their advertisers want them to make serious changes for the better. “
From mid June to late July, the ADL-led coalition enlisted the support of over 1,100 Facebook advertisers, including such heavy hitters as Verizon, Ford, Microsoft and Atlanta’s The Coca-Cola Company. Their stand against Facebook, which is a $70 billion-a-year business, made an important statement. Yet, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was unmoved. He told the online news site The Information that the company was not interested in changing its ways.
“We’re not gonna change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue.”
In fact, when Facebook announced its second quarter earnings July 30, they beat Wall Street’s expectations for revenues, profits and user growth. The company generally shrugged off the effects of the boycott.
Nonetheless, the ADL, which timed the campaign during a period when protests against injustice were being seen in cities across the country, was generally pleased with the results.
David Hoffman, associate regional director of the ADL’s Southeast office in Atlanta, is enthusiastic about what has been accomplished so far.
“We have never seen the response that we have from this effort. The amount of engagement from both companies and individuals exceeded anything that we’ve ever done.”
Hoffman, in particular, points to several of the changes Facebook has made in recent weeks to address the issue of hate speech and Holocaust denial.
“They’ve created a senior role to oversee civil rights. They’ve established a dedicated team to study algorithmic racial bias. They have released a long delayed civil rights audit about some of their media content. They have a demonstrated a new commitment to an independent audit of the platform that could satisfy our demands if it really is independent and they finally take long overdue action against some hateful movements like Boogaloo. So there is a lot that has been done. But again, there’s still a lot to be done.”
Just how much work remains was laid out last year by Sacha Baron Cohen, the Hollywood star, who accepted the ADL’s International Leadership Award with a blistering attack on Facebook and Zuckerberg. He called for a “fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.
“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
Atlanta cybersecurity adviser Azar hosts three YouTube podcasts and CyberHub Summit on technology and is active in the Israeli American Council in Atlanta. He believes we need to change how we legally view these social media sites. They are not just service providers, like a public utility, he maintains, they are publishers, which should be held legally accountable like any another publisher.
“Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely right. We need to rethink these social media platforms. We need to declare them as publishers that are responsible for the content that comes up on their platform. And if we do that, they would straighten up right away because the amount of litigation they would get would force them to rethink what they provide.”