Standing up to hate speech

Standing up to hate speech

As a regular social media user, I find it annoying whenever I scroll through my Facebook account to find many ads that aren’t relevant to my interests. My main purpose for using social media is just that: social. I like to hear from people I don’t see regularly or long-lost friends from my school days.

And while I check my Instagram less often than Facebook, I’m also noticing more ads on the platform that many of my friends use to follow celebrities that they like.

Sometimes I wonder how much extra business advertisers generate from the messages they place on these platforms that are part of nearly everyone’s daily lives. But Facebook makes a fortune, taking in US$69.7 billion last year from millions of advertisers, or roughly 98% of its total revenue of $70.7 billion — that’s nearly three times the GDP of Cambodia.

These days, those millions of ads are sandwiched between an increasing number of troubling posts, from fake news that users share without checking, to videos with violent content, from schoolgirl fights to suicides. Though some inappropriate content gets removed, Facebook needs a stronger screening process to ensure it never gets posted in the first place.

So I wasn’t surprised when I heard about about a global campaign called #StopHateForProfit, which involves multinational companies pulling their advertising from Facebook for a month, possibly longer, with the aim of stopping the spread of hate speech.

Starbucks is among the major advertisers to join the boycott, which is now hitting other social media platforms. Coca-Cola earlier said it would halt advertising on all social media platforms globally, while Unilever is suspending ads on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the US through the end of the year. Other participants include the apparel maker Levi’s and the giant spirits maker Diageo.

Honda Motor Co has joined its western peers “to stand with people united against hate and racism”, and the US motorcycle producer Harley-Davidson is pausing its Facebook ads this month “to stand in support of efforts to stop the spread of hateful content”.

In total, advertisements for more than 400 major brands had vanished as of last Wednesday, after the failure of talks to stop a boycott over hate speech on the site. Ad agency executives said more clients were weighing whether to join.

The brands and agencies, which have been criticising Facebook for its willingness to keep hate speech unaltered and accessible on its site, are pressing for change. Pressure on top advertisers is coming from politicians and celebrities in light of anti-racism protests that have swept the United States. Some Facebook employees are also pushing their employer to clean up its act.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared dismissive at first, saying the financial fallout would be insignificant for the company, while acknowledging that free speech was a contentious issue.

But the corporate attitude has shifted and executives are now in damage-control mode. They are holding daily calls and sending emails to advertisers to soothe them. Facebook is telling the world it has invested billions of dollars in technology and employees to sort through content, and that it had agreed to a civil rights audit. As well, it has banned 250 white supremacist organisations from Facebook and Instagram. Mr Zuckerberg himself has agreed to a meeting with heads of US civil-rights groups tomorrow.

Facebook maintains that its investments in artificial intelligence have resulted in the removal of nearly 90% of hate speech before users report it, and recent surveys put Facebook ahead of competitors like Twitter and YouTube in assessing reports of hate speech.

“We know we have more work to do,” a company spokeswoman said. “Our principles have not changed, but our leaders are rightly spending time with clients and others to discuss the progress we’ve made on the key issues of concern.”

It remains to be seen whether Facebook will continue to take the issue seriously, and whether its actions will be enough to convince advertisers to return. For brands, pausing ads on social media seems a good way to show consumers that they are ready to take action on issues that concern the public.

Ideally, I believe that the all of us — individuals and organisations — should stand against hate speech and any violent content, both in person and online, to help create more welcoming communities. We also need policymakers and authorities in charge of the matter to make sure that real change happens.