This was originally written for the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
For the past several weeks, Facebook has been the subject of a boycott campaign, one that has called on advertisers to pull their business from the social network, due to what the groups involved say is a failure to act quickly enough to curb hate speech and other offensive content. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other senior staff from the company have met with some of the groups who are leading the boycott—a list that includes Free Press, Color of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League—but those groups say the response from Zuckerberg was completely unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, the social network has also been hit by an independent audit report that looked at Facebook’s handling of civil-rights related issues (including the way it has handled offensive posts from Donald Trump) and said the company’s policies and enforcement have been a “tremendous setback” for civil rights.
Using CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we arranged for a series of interviews on both of these topics with human rights and freedom of expression experts, some of whom—like Jessica González, co-chief executive of Free Press—have been directly involved in organizing the boycott campaign. In addition to her role at the advocacy group, González is an attorney and long-time racial justice advocate who co-founded Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 civil and digital-rights groups that works to disrupt online hate. Prior to joining Free Press, she was executive vice president and general counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and she has also worked as a staff attorney and teaching fellow at Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation. Still to come in our Galley discussion series are interviews with Jillian York, the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Jenny Domino, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists who specializes in Myanmar, where Facebook was accused by the United Nations of aiding in the genocide of the Rohingya people.
In her Galley interview, González said that she first started paying attention to how white supremacists in particular were using the media as an organizing tool back in the late 2000s, when she was working with the National Hispanic Media Coalition. A number of groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center were tracking anti-immigrant sentiment and saw how talk radio and cable TV were being used to spread false and dehumanizing information about immigrants, and how they started using social media like Facebook in the same way. “We started organizing against this, and started talking to members of other demographic groups that are often targeted by hate: Blacks, LGBTQ people, Muslims, etc. And we followed how white supremacists were organizing online, and started drawing attention to it in the early 2010s,” said González. Those efforts led to the creation of the Change the Terms coalition. “We have a set of model corporate policies to disrupt online hate, and we’ve been asking for big tech firms to adopt them since 2018,” she said.
Since the boycott began—and even before—Facebook has been trying to push the message that it sees hate speech and white supremacist content as a bad thing, and that it is doing everything it can to remove it. Nick Clegg, the company’s head of communications, even wrote a widely panned blog post entitled “Facebook Does Not Benefit From Hate.” But González says she’s not convinced. “Here’s the truth: their algorithms still drive people to hate groups and hateful content, Facebook makes money by keeping people on the site, and hateful content is exactly the type of stuff that keeps people glued to their screens,” she said. “When I spoke to Mark Zuckerberg last week, I reminded him that the El Paso shooter drove to Walmart with the specific intent to kill immigrants and brown people, invoking the same dehumanizing language that appears in thousands of Facebook ads from Trump and other politicians.” The social network, González says, has normalized hate and disinformation.
In the meeting with Zuckerberg, the #StopHateForProfit group was hoping to hear at least some indication of how Facebook was planning to address the campaign’s grievances, González says, but it got virtually nothing. “Many of our demands are long-standing, years-old demands that Facebook has failed repeatedly to meet,” said González. “We expected Facebook to come ready to respond to our demands, to commit to timelines for implementation. Instead, Facebook wanted us to walk through the demands and have yet another conversation. They seemed to think that having Mark on a call for an hour without making any commitments would be enough to placate us. Here’s the thing though: none of us are starstruck with Mark, he doesn’t get a pass just for showing up. We expect action.”
Here’s more on Facebook, hate speech, and civil rights:
Disappointing verdict: The independent audit of Facebook’s handling of civil rights on its platform, an audit that the company volunteered to engage in because of previous concerns about hate speech and disinformation, reinforced the feeling expressed by González and others that the company is long on talk and short on action. “Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” the auditors wrote. They said that Facebook “isn’t sufficiently attuned to the depth of concern on the issue of polarization and the way that the algorithms used by Facebook inadvertently fuel extreme and polarizing content.”
Distorted mirror: In his post defending Facebook, Clegg said platforms like the social network “hold up a mirror to society.” With more than 3 billion people using the company’s apps every month, he wrote, “everything that is good, bad and ugly in our societies will find expression on our platform.” But as a number of critics of the company pointed out in the wake of his post, Facebook doesn’t just “hold a mirror” up to society that reflects what people do or say—its content algorithms pick and choose which posts people see and which they don’t, and the ones that are privileged by the algorithm, including advertisements, get far more engagement and reach far more broadly than anything else. If that’s a reflection in a mirror, then it’s a very distorted one.
Bulletproof: Despite the fact that a number of leading advertisers including Unilever, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola have joined the Facebook boycott, analysts say there is likely to be little financial impact on the company, simply because of its sheer size—it has revenues of more than $70 billion— and the fact that most of its advertising comes from smaller businesses rather than a few large brands. Its share price has climbed since the boycott began, because it is expected to generate more than $21 billion in profit this year even with the ad boycott. But the #StopHateForProfit group says it hopes that public sentiment might encourage the company to make some changes anyway.
Other notable stories:
Twitter was forced to shut off the ability for verified users to post to the network for several hours on Wednesday after hackers gained access to the accounts of some high-profile users, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos, and Kanye West, and posted tweets that claimed they would reward anyone who sent Bitcoin crypto-currency to a specific address. According to some reports, over $100,000 was sent to that address before the hacked accounts were returned to their owners. Vice reported that the hackers appear to have gained access to an internal Twitter control panel that gave them the ability to login to the accounts despite security protections like two-factor authentication.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford published new research today analysing the percentage of non-white top editors in a strategic sample of one hundred major online and offline news outlets in five different markets across four continents: Brazil, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Authors Rasmus Nielsen, Meera Selva and Simge Andı looked at ten top online news outlets and ten top offline news outlets in each market, and found that in Germany and the UK, none of the outlets had a non-white top editor. In Brazil, with a majority non-white population, there was one, and in the US there were just two. Overall, eighteen percent of the eighty-eight top editors across the one hundred brands covered are non-white despite the fact that, on average, forty-one percent of the population across all five countries is non-white.
Substack, the popular email newsletter hosting platform, says it will now offer legal support services to some of the writers and journalists who use its distribution network. The company said it is “working with first-rate media lawyers to provide free advice and direction to writers who are facing legal uncertainty or pressure because of their work,” including pre-publication legal review of individual stories and responses to cease-and-desist letters. Substack says it is also considering offering other services to those who use its platform, including healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, and design.
Apple says it is introducing several new features for Apple News and Apple News+, including audio stories of some of the best feature stories from Apple News+, a daily audio news briefing hosted by Apple News editors, and curated local news collections beginning in five cities and regions and expanding to more areas in the future. Apple News is also adding more top local and regional news outlets for readers and subscribers, including The Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald, and The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).
The Local Media Association is launching the Center for Journalism Funding, with financial support from the Google News Initiative. Applications for funding will open in early August and fifteen publishers will be selected to participate in a six-month program, including a diverse mix of newspapers, broadcasters and digital news sites. The LMA says it is in the process of recruiting a managing director to run the Center and lab, and subject-matter experts will serve as coaches. The lab has two goals: to drive at least $2.25 million in funding for journalism projects for the 15 publishers combined, and to publish an extensive industry playbook on funding journalism through philanthropy.
News Corp is preparing to launch more than a dozen new digital-only titles in major centres of regional Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, according to a report from ABC. Each new masthead will be digital-only and begin with one reporter. The company’s expansion comes after it turned more than 100 print mastheads into online publications and merged 13 newspapers with other titles, cutting hundreds of jobs in the process. News Corp’s national community masthead network editor said the company had identified 50 potential new digital titles it could open over the next two to three years. The company is currently hiring journalists and plans to launch the first 15 by the end of September.
Facebook said on Wednesday that it will launch a new section of its social network dedicated to dispelling inaccurate myths about COVID-19. It’s the company’s latest effort to stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus, following notifications encouraging everybody to wear a mask, and efforts to mark misleading posts as false. The sample screen shown in the tweet suggests that Facebook will use the World Health Organization as a trusted source for this new “Facts about Covid-19” section, and will include simple statements of fact like “Hydroxychloroquine hasn’t been proven to cure, treat, or prevent it.”
Sam Dubberley, head of the Evidence Lab in the Crisis Response Programme at Amnesty International, writes for CJR about the issue of vicarious trauma, in which moderators and others viewing violent content on social networks suffer from a variety of post-traumatic stress-related problems. A May settlement involving Facebook dealt directly with the impact of secondary or vicarious trauma on its moderators, he writes, and “felt like a vindication.” The settlement came as the result of a case brought by a former content moderator for the company, and the agreement will see over 11,000 of the platform’s former and current moderators receive a minimum of $1,000 as compensation.
A freelancer with bylines in The Jerusalem Post and The Algemeinerwho attacked critics of the surveillance company NSO Group, appears to be an elaborate fiction with a manufactured profile photo, according to a report from Reuters. The wire service says the university the man claims to have attended has no record of him, he has no online footprint beyond an account on the question-and-answer site Quora, where he was active for two days in March. Two newspapers that published his work say they have tried and failed to confirm his identity, and experts used state-of-the-art forensic analysis programs to determine that his profile photo is a hyper-realistic forgery.
Wyoming has six newspapers that call themselves dailies, but for the first time, none of them will print and distribute a paper seven days a week, according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, after the Casper Star-Tribune announced that it will no longer print a Monday version of the paper. It could be the first time a U.S. state will publish no newspapers on Monday mornings, writes Josh Benton (although there is a small afternoon weekly that still publishes on Mondays). The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne killed its Monday paper in 2018, the Laramie Boomerang doesn’t print on Mondays or Tuesdays, the Riverton Ranger skips Mondays and Saturdays, and the Gillette News-Record printed a Monday paper until two months ago, when it cut back from six days to two.