With more than two billion users Facebook is bigger than Christianity,” says Stanford law professor Jim Steyer. “Their ability to amplify hate speech or white supremacy or racist messages is so extraordinary because of the scale of the platform.”
It’s a typically bold statement from the man who set up the Stop Hate for Profit (SHFP) campaign calling on advertisers to withdraw from Facebook for the month of July. More than 500 firms have joined the temporary boycott, including Coca-Cola, Adidas and Unilever.
Facebook’s stock price has taken a tumble, though it still remains high, and last week its communications chief, Nick Clegg, was busy trying to persuade anyone who’d listen that the platform has a “zero tolerance” approach to hate speech. But, he wrote in a policy statement posted on Thursday, “[w]hen content falls short of being classified as hate speech... we err on the side of free expression because, ultimately, the best way to counter hurtful, divisive, offensive speech, is more speech. Exposing it to sunlight is better than hiding it in the shadows.”
As far as Steyer is concerned, Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, has become a mouthpiece for social destruction.
“Nick should be embarrassed for putting that forward,” says Steyer. “He and Mark would flunk a fifth-grade civics class with their libertarian ‘free speech trumps everything in society’ argument. The first amendment doesn’t apply to Facebook. The first amendment applies to government restrictions on speech in the United States.”
He says the campaign is not afraid to “shame people who do terrible things to our society,” as long as it doesn’t involve ad hominem attacks. As forthright as he is in his opinions, some of the heat is taken out of them by the fact he seems to call everyone by their first name. This may be because he knows everyone. A renowned networker, the ebullient 64-year-old has been said to be “connected to more big names than Kevin Bacon”. His “little brother”, as he calls him, is the billionaire former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer who ran a conspicuously unsuccessful campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out in February, having spent $191m on advertising.
Among the names he mentions is “Sheryl” – Sandberg, the number two at Facebook. Steyer likes to joke that he is “no longer invited to Sheryl’s Hanukkah party”, as a result of his 2012 book, Talking Back to Facebook.
It argued that Facebook, along with other social media platforms, had “a very significant and negative impact on the social, emotional and cognitive development of children”. Steyer is the founder of Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation that promotes safe media and entertainment for children. A New Yorker, he started out as a schoolteacher in Harlem and the South Bronx, moved into civil rights – he did death penalty work with the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and ran the NAACP Legal Defence Fund – and began teaching civil liberties at Stanford in 1986.
Today, with his flowing blond hair and wearing an old T-shirt, Steyer looks every inch a Californian. On our Zoom call he even uses an image of a surfer’s wave for his screen backdrop. Since his book, his attitude towards Facebook has if anything hardened. Last autumn he found himself in conversation about social media with a new friend, “Sacha”, the comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen – best known for the satirical inventions Borat and Ali G. “He’s a very, very intelligent man,” says Steyer.
They were joined by Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Out of their discussion came the idea for SHFP. Steyer’s intention was to launch the campaign back in January but decided more partners were needed. In the event Baron Cohen made a cutting reference to Facebook’s CEO when he introduced JoJo Rabbit at the Golden Globes.
“It’s critical that the UK and Europe speak up – they’re incredibly important territories for FacebookJim Steyer
“The hero of this next movie is a naive, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends,” said Baron Cohen. “His name is Mark Zuckerberg.”
It was the protests provoked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May that led civil rights groups including Colour of Change and NAACP to come on board with Steyer. “A lot of the white supremacist arguments being made and falsehoods about both Covid-19 and racial justice were on Facebook,” he explains.
The newly formed coalition’s strategy was to “hit Facebook in the wallet”. But it’s a very large and deep wallet. The company generates more than $70bn in annual advertising revenues, and most of that money comes not from major brands but from small businesses.
So far the boycott has been limited to the United States, which means many of the companies that have been vocal about withdrawing their advertising continue to spend money on Facebook elsewhere in the world. Indeed, some have simply shifted their advertising to Instagram (also owned by Facebook) or targeted Facebook users through the Facebook Audience Network.
Steyer is aware of these get-outs, but says he’s astonished by how quickly the campaign has taken off, far outstripping his expectations. In any case, he says, this is just the first stage. SHFP are now seeking a global response, and are looking to the UK and Europe to follow suit. They’ve set up a London office, headed by former Conservative culture minister Ed Vaizey.
“It’s critical the UK and Europe speak up,” says Steyer, “because they’re incredibly important territories for Facebook and the big tech companies, and there should be a universal rejection of hate speech and racism and mass disinformation because they’re actually undermining the norms of our democracy.”
But is Facebook to blame for racism and hate speech? Is it the job of communication forums to police content? Until relatively recently, the social media giants have done a very effective job of presenting themselves as disinterested platform providers, no more liable for what takes place on their sites than a phone company is responsible for the conversations that occur between two callers. Using section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to make its case, Silicon Valley companies have successfully passed themselves off as internet service providers rather than publishers, which means they are not legally liable for user content. Steyer says it has become his “crusade” to remove this protection from companies like Facebook. “They’re the biggest publishers in the world,” he complains, “but they’re seen as utilities.”
A complicating factor – and one on which SHFP is applying pressure – is that social media, in particular Facebook, has eaten up most of the advertising revenue that traditional media, operating with all the restrictions and responsibilities that publishing entails, long depended upon. This economic component is just one part of a complex jigsaw of interlocking issues and causes that Steyer passionately maps out. It’s no coincidence, he argues, that the growth in unregulated social media has been accompanied by a growth in “authoritarian populism”.
He points to social media manipulation, electoral subversion, Russian dark ops and libertarian apologists. And he has little truck for the defence, made by Clegg, that as over 100 billion messages are posted on Facebook’s services each day, it’s impossible to capture every piece of hate speech (Clegg claims almost 90% of it is removed before it is reported).
“Don’t tell me they can’t figure that out,” says Steyer. “They’re a trillion-dollar company. If they really wanted to, they could completely clean up that platform.”
SHFP maintains that Facebook not only allows too much hate speech, but also has chosen Breitbart News as a “trusted news source” and has made the right-wing news website The Daily Caller a “fact-checker” (one of the third-party entities that review the accuracy of stories on Facebook). Both publications, says SPFH, have “records of working with known white nationalists.”
SPFH also admonishes Facebook for not actively helping to get out the vote. Is that their responsibility too?
“I didn’t put that there,” Steyer says, before accusing Facebook of allowing voter suppression messages aimed at African Americans. Clegg made a commitment on Thursday that “every Facebook user of voting age in the US will be given information, prominently displayed on the top of their News Feed, on how to register to vote”.
Nevertheless for Steyer, the company’s political leanings are clear to see. “Zuckerberg has his thumb on the scale for Trump,” he says.
Referring to the private dinners held between the Facebook chief and Donald Trump, and attended by the Trump-supporting libertarian billionaire and Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, Steyer believes the Facebook hierarchy has allowed the president to use “dishonest ads and misinformation” and spread hatred. Thiel last week let it be known that he won’t be backing Trump’s presidential campaign this year because of the economic damage wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Twitter placed warnings on some of Trump’s tweets, including the line, notorious for its racist echoes, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
Trump put the same message on Facebook and Instagram without any intervention. Zuckerberg said while he disagreed with Trump’s language, democratic accountability meant that the president’s words should be available for scrutiny.
“They’ve permitted him to have violence and hate…” says Steyer, before trailing off.
Having grown more animated in his denunciations, he is suddenly aware of moving too far from the stated agenda, and promptly issues a reminder that the campaign is politically nonpartisan. “It’s not Trump we’re focused on. It’s hate, misinformation and racism. All the platforms have responsibility, but the biggest offender is Facebook.”
Ultimately, he would like to see Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, broken up and subject to the same publishing guidelines as the old media on whose content it trades. But that, he concedes, will be a long struggle.
“I’ll be doing this for many years to come. I’m a young man, I like my job, and unlike my brother, I’m not going to be running for president. I look at this as a mission.”