Boycotting Facebook: A strike for freedom?

The high-profile boycott of Facebook (and other internet platforms) by advertisers is the latest flare-up in the long-simmering battle between advertisers and platforms over who controls content and advertising online. The boycott follows a call from an advocacy group called Stop Hate for Profit, which is keeping a running list of the ever-growing number of businesses choosing to “hit pause on hate” and “stand in solidarity with our most deeply held American values of freedom, equality and justice and not advertise on Facebook’s services in July.”  

via Reuters

Dissatisfaction with censorship policies

Stop Hate for Profit’s call originates from
dissatisfaction with Facebook’s handling of misinformation and hate speech — or,
more precisely, a perceived failure to edit out content they allege has
“allowed incitement to violence against protesters fighting for racial justice
in America.” The boycott, however, likely also stems from a number of other festering
resentments against Facebook, not least of which is its perceived market
dominance and the magnitude of its advertising profits.

In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg met with American civil rights groups on Tuesday. However, the critics appear unconvinced by the firm’s existing measures, including the appointment of an independent Oversight Board to arbitrate in content moderation disputes and contracts with “local experts on the ground” to “independently review content and rate its accuracy so we can continue to reduce the spread of misinformation on our platforms.” Even the release of a Facebook-commissioned independent audit on Wednesday, which found “significant improvements in the platform,” but identified a need for stronger interpretation and enforcement of its existing civil rights policies, has apparently failed to mollify aggrieved stakeholders.

In America and internationally

The boycott has taken on an international flavor, with companies including New Zealand’s media giant Stuff joining the bandwagon “as an experiment” and Australian telcos Telstra and Optus “actively monitoring” the platform. Notably, Stuff directly competes with Facebook in local advertising markets, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently undertaking an inquiry into the competitiveness of the country’s digital advertising services. Global boycott justifications thus manifest far more broadly than just domestic American civil rights grievances.  

If American values of freedom, equality,
and justice are truly a subject of the boycott, then those same values are
being demonstrated by the very act of boycotting itself. Incorporated in
Delaware, Facebook’s legal personhood is American, and thus enjoys freedom to
trade with whomever it wishes, just as consumers can choose to trade with it or
not. 

Free to trade

Advertisers can choose to boycott Facebook because
other digital advertising options are available. The firm can differentiate
itself from rival platforms with the processes and policies it adopts on issues
such as content moderation and advertising policy. Both consumers and
advertisers are free to choose which platforms to patronize based on these
policies (or other factors). Just as consumers preferring organic produce can
eschew non-organic goods, or as “ethical investors” are not compelled to hold
shares in the tobacco or armaments industries, Facebook’s members and
advertisers can make their own choices. Market forces will prevail, based on
the preferences of the firm’s suppliers and customers. If the business of
stakeholders with strong preferences is sufficiently important to Facebook,
then it will adjust its policies to meet those preferences. If not, then the
preferences of Facebook’s owners and managers prevails.

Importantly, Facebook and other platforms are free to differ in their censorship and advertising policies precisely because they are corporate citizens. In the US at least, they are not bound by First Amendment censorship obligations. Variety in platform policies and processes will persist so long as consumers and suppliers have differing preferences, with self selection leading to an array of “commercial communities” built around different values. So long as patrons can move freely between communities as and when their individual values and preferences change, then variety — and competition based on commercial signals — will persist.

The commercial boycott, therefore, follows the
tried-and-tested American way of sorting between providers.

But directed to edit?

However, there is the risk that political
processes favoring the preferences of specific interests might “crowd out”
commercial signals. If all platforms agree to (or are required by regulation to
adhere to) the required policies of the noisiest interest groups, then variety
within the sector will vanish. Common censorship policies will not only be detrimental
to the exercise of free speech — they will also have ramifications for competition.
With fewer dimensions available for platform differentiation, an already-concentrated
digital advertising platform market will likely become even more concentrated,
to the detriment of both advertisers and consumers.

Hopefully the censorship policy decisions made by Facebook (and other platforms) are ultimately based on commercial and not political, populist imperatives. If the latter prevail, then internet platforms risk becoming yet another arm of the state, not a medium via which critical debate of it (and other matters) can be freely engaged in.

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