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Celebrities show Facebook's issue is the social network itself

John McGee


Influencer Kim Kardashian West

Influencer Kim Kardashian West

Influencer Kim Kardashian West

Kim Kardashian West's decision to stage a one-day boycott of Facebook and Instagram last Wednesday may have been welcomed in some quarters with equal amounts of joy and relief. But for her 188 million followers on Instagram and the 30.5 million people who like her Facebook page, she was letting them know that she is not one bit happy about the social media giant's role in providing a platform for disinformation and racism.

"I love that I can connect directly with you through Instagram and Facebook, but I can't sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation - created by groups to sow division and split America apart - only to take steps after people are killed," she told her devout social media followers last Tuesday.

Kardashian West was joined in her 24-hour boycott by a number of other celebrities, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Jennifer Lawrence and Mark Ruffalo, all of whom were expressing their support of the #StopHateForProfit campaign which has called on Facebook to do a lot more to banish racism, disinformation and hate speech from its platform.

The celebrity boycott came after over 1,000 advertisers, including some of the world's top brands, staged a month-long protest by pulling their advertising campaigns from Facebook in June.

The list included Unilever, Diageo, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Patagonia, Levi's, Honda, Lego and Puma. In a vote of no confidence in the social media giant, the brands also claimed that not enough was being done to weed out the nefarious actors hell-bent on using Facebook's platforms to drive racist agendas, spread disinformation and, well, threaten and undermine democracy as we know it.

Ever since the attempts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, Facebook has stumbled from crisis to crisis and hardly a month goes by without it being involved in some spat with a regulator or a lobby group.

From its refusal to discuss fake news and data privacy in front of UK and Canadian government officials, persistent data breaches which have led to fines in excess of $5bn (€4.24bn), misleading advertising and the live-streaming of a mass murder in New Zealand in 2019, the company has weathered all storms.

If Facebook was a newspaper, radio station or TV channel, it would almost certainly have been closed down a long time ago. If any of these media outlets consistently published disinformation to undermine election candidates, broadcast spurious cures for Covid-19 or provided a home for racist revisionists, they would be rightly hauled over the coals by regulators, the government, libel lawyers, advertisers, readers and listeners.

But Facebook is none of these. Yet while it has invoked the wrath of legislators, advertisers, governments, and civil liberties groups, it has emerged bloodied but unbowed from these scrapes, perhaps in the belief that it is too big to fail.

While the company has gone to great lengths to close down pages, ban certain advertisers and moderate more content, this whack-a-mole approach is not working. Such is the enormity of its operations that for every page it closes or advertiser it boots off its platform, new ones re-emerge elsewhere on the site.

When the company announced it was banning cryptocurrency ads in 2018, hundreds of closed cryptocurrency groups sprang up, and all manner of cryptocurrencies are still being promoted to members of these groups. And I'm pretty sure not all of them are legitimate.

As the recent advertising boycott has shown, financial sanctions don't seem to work either and many of the boycotting advertisers have since returned to Facebook's warm embrace. With nine million advertisers on its platform, most of them SMEs, Facebook and Instagram are too important to boycott or ignore. In fact, the top 100 big advertisers only account for around 16pc of revenues.

In all discussions about how to make Facebook more accountable and less damaging to society and democracy, the conversation invariably leads back to much more regulatory oversight, greater scrutiny of its operations and, if needs be, a possible break-up of its operations.

That day couldn't come any sooner.

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