Wwith more than two billion users, Facebook is bigger than Christianity, says Stanford law professor Jim Steyer. “Their ability to reinforce hate speech or white supremacy or racist messages is so extraordinary because of the scale of the platform.”
It is a typically bold statement from the man who set up the Stop Hate for Profit (SHFP) campaign that encourages advertisers to withdraw from Facebook for the month of July. More than 500 companies have joined the temporary boycott, including Coca-Cola, Adidas and Unilever.
As for Steyer, Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, has become a mouthpiece for social destruction.
“Nick should be embarrassed to have presented it,” says Steyer. “He and Mark would flunk a fifth-class citizen class with their freedom of” free speech trumps everything in society “arguments. The first amendment does not apply to Facebook. The first amendment concerns the government’s restrictions on speech in the United States. “
He says the campaign is not afraid to “embarrass people who do terrible things to our society” as long as it does not include ad hominem attacks. As straight as he is in his opinions, some of the heat is taken out of them by the fact that he seems to call everyone by their first name. It may be because he knows everyone. The well-known network, the astonishing 64-year-old has been said to be “linked to more big names than Kevin Bacon”. His “little brother”, as he calls him, is the former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, the billionaire who ran an eye-catching unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. He released in February after spending $ 191 million on advertising.
Among the names he mentions are “Sheryl” – Sandberg, number two on Facebook. Steyer likes to joke that he “is no longer invited to Sheryl’s Hanukkah party,” as a result of his 2012 book, Talk back to Facebook.
It claimed that Facebook, along with other social media platforms, had “a very significant and negative impact on children’s social, emotional and cognitive development”. Steyer is the founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe media and entertainment for children. A New Yorker, he started as a teacher in Harlem and the South Bronx, moved into civil rights – he did the death sentence with lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and ran the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – and began teaching civil law at Stanford in 1986.
Today, with her flowing blonde hair and wearing an old T-shirt, Steyer looks every inch a Californian. On our Zoom call, he even uses a picture of a surfer’s wave for his screen background. Since his book, his attitude to Facebook about something hardened. Last fall, he was in conversation on social media with a new friend, “Sacha,” comedian Sacha Baron Cohen – best known for the satirical inventions Borat and Ali G. “He’s a very, very intelligent man,” Steyer says.
They were joined by Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League. The idea for SHFP came out of their discussion. Steyer’s intention was to start the campaign in January, but decided that more partners were needed. In the event, Baron Cohen referred to Facebook’s CEO when he introduced JoJo Rabbit at the Golden Globes.
“The hero of this next film is a naive, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and has only imaginary friends,” Baron Cohen said. “His name is Mark Zuckerberg.”
It was the protests provoked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 that led to civil rights groups including the Color of Change and the NAACP to board Steyer. “Much of the white supremacist argument put forward and falsehoods about both Covid-19 and race law were on Facebook,” he explains.
The newly formed coalition’s strategy was to “hit Facebook in the wallet”. But it is a very large and deep wallet. The company generates more than $ 70 billion in annual advertising revenue, 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 that many of the companies that have decided to withdraw their advertising continue to spend money on Facebook elsewhere in the world. In fact, some have simply moved their advertising to Instagram (which is also owned by Facebook) or targeted Facebook users through the Facebook Audience Network.
Steyer is aware of these get-outs, but says he is amazed at how fast the campaign has gone and far exceeded his expectations. Anyway, he says, this is just the first step. SHFP is now seeking a global response and is looking to the UK and Europe to follow suit. They have set up an office in London, led by former Conservative Minister of Culture Ed Vaizey.
“It is critical that the UK and Europe speak up,” says Steyer, “because they are extremely important territories for Facebook and the big tech companies, and there should be a universal denial of hate speech and racism and mass disclosure because they actually undermine the standards of our democracy. “
But is Facebook blamed for racism and hate speech? Is it the job of communication forum to police content? Until relatively recently, the social media giants have done a very effective job of presenting themselves as uninterested platform providers, no more responsible for what is happening on their websites than a telephone company responsible for the conversations that take place between two callers. Using Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to do its business, Silicon Valley companies have successfully gone away as Internet providers rather than publishers, which means they are not legally responsible for user content. Steyer says it has become his “crusade” to remove this protection from companies like Facebook. “They are the world’s largest publisher,” he complains, “but they are seen as tools.”
One complicating factor – and one that SHFP exerts pressure on – is that social media, especially Facebook, has eaten up most of the advertising revenue that traditional media, with all the limitations and responsibilities that publishing entails, has long been due. This financial component is just part of a complex puzzle of related issues and causes Steyer to be passionate about it. It is no coincidence, he argues, that growth in unregulated social media has been accompanied by a growth in “authoritarian populism.”
He points to manipulation on social media, selected subversion, Russian dark ops and libertarian apologists. And he has a small truck for the defense, done by Clegg, that since over 100 billion messages are published on Facebook’s services every day, it’s impossible to catch every bit of hate speech (Clegg claims nearly 90% of it is removed before it is reported).
“Don’t tell me they can’t figure it out,” says Steyer. “They are a pool company. If they really wanted to, they could clear the platform completely. “
SHFP claims that Facebook not only allows too much hate speech, but has also chosen Breitbart News as a “reliable news source” and has made the right-wing news site The Daily Caller a “fact-checker” (one of the third-party entities that reviews the accuracy of stories on Facebook ). Both publications, says SPFH, have “records of working with famous white nationalists.”
SPFH also urges Facebook not to actively help get the vote out. Is it their responsibility too?
“I didn’t put that down,” Steyer says, before accusing Facebook of allowing voter suppression messages targeting African Americans. Clegg made a commitment on Thursday that “every Facebook user with voting age in the US will receive information, prominently displayed at the top of their News Feed, on how to register to vote”.
But for Steyer it is clear to see the company’s political slopes. “Zuckerberg has the thumb on the scale for Trump,” he says.
Citing the private dinners between the Facebook boss and Donald Trump, attended by 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 made it known that he will not support Trump’s presidential campaign this year because of the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, Twitter posted warnings on some of Trump’s tweets, including the line, notorious for its racist echoes, “when the looting starts shooting.”
Trump put the same message on Facebook and Instagram without intervention. Zuckerberg said that while he did not agree with Trump’s language, democratic accountability meant that the president’s words should be available for scrutiny.
“They have allowed him to have violence and hatred …” says Steyer, before breaking off.
After becoming more animated in the layoffs, he is suddenly aware that he is moving too far from the stated agenda and quickly provides a reminder that the campaign is politically non-partisan. “It’s not Trump we’re focusing on. It is hatred, misinformation and racism. All platforms are responsible, but the biggest offender is Facebook. “
In the end, he would like to see Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, divided and subject to the same publishing guidelines as the old media on whose content it deals. But that, he admits, will be a long battle.
“I will do this for many years to come. I am a young man, I like my job, and unlike my brother, I will not go as president. I look at this as a mission. “