Facebook Is Not Your Friend

Mark Zuckerberg invoked the iconic figures of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. when defending why his company will allow political candidates to lie with reckless abandon. Wait, what? (Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”

A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.

What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?

Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.

On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.

Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.

Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.

Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.

To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.

Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.

For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.

Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:

  • Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
  • Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
  • Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
  • Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
  • Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views

All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:

It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.

Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.

Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.

In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.


When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.

In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.

What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.

So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:

If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.

Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.

Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.

To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.

It’s 2018, and CEOs Are Still Saying Very Dumb Things

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For the love of God, Mark Zuckerberg, don’t try to defend the intent of Holocaust deniers. (Photo Credit: JD Lasica/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

In an era in which companies and their executives are under more scrutiny than ever, and when a climate of political correctness beckons accountability for every faux pas uttered—deservedly so, I might add—it is yet astonishing that corporate leaders continue to make very public statements that espouse very dumb viewpoints. As tends to be the case, these officers are public faces for their organizations, if not namesakes. In the name of protecting their brand and avoiding bad optics, one would think these influential figures would make it a priority not to do or say anything that could generate negative publicity.

Of course, it may simply be that these individuals can’t help themselves. While not a chief executive, Roseanne Barr ran into this situation recently when, not long after a successful reboot of her eponymous ABC show got underway, she went and blew up her opportunity by tweeting disparaging comments of a racist and Islamophobic nature about Valerie Jarrett, businesswoman and former Obama White House official. Essentially, all Barr had to do was not make disgusting remarks like the one that got her show canned. And yet, she felt compelled. The real downside of this, as some might argue, is that a show with working-class appeal that could have helped further a discussion about race and politics in this era was cut short. For Roseanne’s sake, few but her staunchest defenders were sympathetic.

To be fair, and while not to in any way excuse likening a black person to an ape, it’s often in a comedian’s job description to say things that are off-color or to behave in somewhat of a subversive way. With CEOs, however, it is not, and this what makes their lapses particularly alarming. Granted, they might not be particularly well-versed in the intricacies of HR guidelines and PR campaigns. Still, given their prominence within their organizations—frequently accompanied by a salary and benefits that more than compensates them for their time, effort, and expertise—one would think they would use the resources at their disposal to better guard themselves against negative outcomes. Or better yet, rely on their business savvy and common sense.

Instead, we get John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, dropping an N-bomb during a company conference call. Schnatter did own up to using the epithet following reports of this incident, if we are to give him any semblance of credit, and there was a context to his utterance of the slur—though even with this in mind, he probably could’ve done without it.

The problem with this context is that it doesn’t make Schnatter seem any less reprehensible. His employ of the term occurred when trying to make an analogy about his criticism of the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell in failing to adequately address player protests of the National Anthem (specifically, as a problem to be “nipped in the bud”) and hurting the company’s bottom line versus Col. Sanders, iconic founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, using the epithet in his own right. As Schnatter seemed to suggest, there was a measure of unfairness about him being singled out for his criticisms of the NFL while Sanders didn’t catch the same flak.

This comparison is a problematic one for multiple reasons. For one, while any deep-seated prejudices held by Harland Sanders’s can only be guessed, and while he may have been slow to adopt less offensive terminology for African-Americans or even contributed to the likes of pro-segregation presidential candidate George Wallace, his use of that word appears largely based on conjecture. Besides, trying to exonerate yourself by contrasting your actions with those of a man who dressed like a plantation owner through the Jim Crow era isn’t exactly a terribly high bar to clear. More than a quarter-century after Sanders’s death and in an age in which corporations are more cognizant than ever about their public image, this much should be more or less an afterthought.

It should be stressed that John Schnatter stepped down as CEO back in December after the backlash he and Papa John’s received following his comments about the NFL and player protests, so technically he is no longer serving in that function. In the wake of his more recent admission of using the N-word, Schnatter has also resigned as chairman. Although now he considers resigning a mistake. And the remaining board members have adopted a “poison pill” provision to try to avoid attempts by Schnatter to make a power play and reclaim his position atop the board. Simply put, it’s a mess, one that may have predated these controversies, but one which was magnified by them.

You may or may not have high regard for the Papa John’s product. I live in an area in which there is no shortage of local pizzerias, let alone Domino’s and Pizza Hut, so I personally could take or leave it. Regardless of one’s judgment of Papa John’s taste and overall quality, with over 4,500 locations worldwide, it’s not as if one can easily dismiss the restaurant chain. With other companies related to technological advances, there is perhaps a greater sense of demand or interest based on the novelty of their goods or services. This not withstanding, they too are subject to their founder/CEO going rogue in an era and in industries where public perception arguably should dictate more responsible behavior.

Mark Zuckerberg, fresh off a very public scandal involving the possible exposure of up to 87 million Facebook users and their data to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, recently was interviewed by Kara Swisher of Recode fame, and while the interview touched on a number of different topics, on the subject of whether or not conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones should have a platform, Zuckerberg said something rather befuddling about Holocaust deniers and whether they deserve to be banned. The relevant segment of the interview, as copied from the transcript:

Okay. “Sandy Hook didn’t happen” is not a debate. It is false. You can’t just take that down?

I agree that it is false.

I also think that going to someone who is a victim of Sandy Hook and telling them, “Hey, no, you’re a liar” — that is harassment, and we actually will take that down. But overall, let’s take this whole closer to home…

I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.

I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think-

In the case of the Holocaust deniers, they might be, but go ahead.

It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent. I just think, as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. I’m sure a lot of leaders and public figures we respect do too, and I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, “We’re going to take someone off the platform if they get things wrong, even multiple times.” What we will do is we’ll say, “Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.” But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed.

Swisher makes an all-too-valid point, as the majority of us would agree. Sandy Hook was not a hoax. There is no debating the merits of whether it happened or not. The same goes for the Holocaust. There simply is no place in regular discourse for litigating its legitimacy. Unless you are, say, a child who is just becoming able to comprehend what the Holocaust was and the devastation it wrought, any meditations on the intent of deniers is ridiculous. They intend to deny these events as a function of their anti-Semitism. There’s no leeway here.

Zuckerberg would soon after E-mail a clarification to Swisher about how “deeply” offensive he finds Holocaust denial and that he “absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.” But, Mr. Zuckerberg, Mark, if I may—you pretty much just defended it by saying it’s hard to “impugn intent.” It’s like President Donald Trump saying there was room for blame “on both sides” related to the unrest and violence in Charlottesville after a group of white nationalists rallied. When there are Nazis holding freaking torches, you disavow them. This is basic stuff.

In Zuckerberg’s case, he made comments that, at best, signify he is out of touch with the impact Facebook has and how it can be used to influence people to join in destructive causes. At worst, they signify that he understands this impact full well, but he and his company are actively choosing not to censor dangerous content because it affects the company’s bottom line.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only high-profile tech-oriented CEO to meet with criticism, only to take his foot and jam it squarely into his mouth. For the longest time, Elon Musk and Tesla Motors have seemingly gotten a free pass from news media because their product is not only sleek and sexy (and hella expensive), but lends itself to optimism about a future in which electric cars have greatly reduced our consumption of fossil fuels and autonomous driving can reduce costs and fatalities in vehicle crashes.

More recently, however, as Tesla has tried to produce its vehicles on a larger scale, it has met with production delays and quality issues, not to mention a well-publicized death involving the use of autonomous vehicle technology and concerns about injuries at company facilities being underreported. Understandably, the organization has received a fair amount of negative press in this regard, and Musk has taken it upon himself to criticize the media and even suggest creating a service by which users can assess the “core truth” and “credibility” of editors, journalists, and publications.

Musk isn’t entirely out of bounds with his defensiveness in the face of criticism at the hands of major media outlets. This is to say that, when the demand to generate clicks or potentially to satisfy corporate donors within the fossil fuels industry is ever-present, coverage of Tesla Motors’s doings can easily be skewed. Going after Reveal, a publication by the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, meanwhile, for a story about the aforementioned workplace safety concerns at Tesla and labelling them an “extremist organization” carries less weight, and connotes a sort of thin-skinned petulance, if not signaling a rising desire among corporate and political leaders to intimidate or invite violence against journalists who don’t play nice for the sake of playing nice.

Musk caught flak again when he volunteered a child-sized submersible in the midst of the rescue of the Thai soccer team cave rescue that drew a worldwide audience. Right then and there, the Tesla CEO merited criticism for offering a solution based on an incomplete understanding of the logistics of the rescue, an act many saw as a PR maneuver designed to distract from his company’s failings of late. When Vern Unsworth, a British diver involved in the rescue, was asked about Musk’s “contribution,” he panned it, saying that it had “no chance” of working and that Musk could kindly “stick it where it hurts.”

Musk, because he is a CEO of a major corporation and highly attuned to the workings of social media, took this comment in stride. Kidding! He promptly tweeted and called Unsworth a pedophile, and then apologized for calling him a pedophile—while at the same time justifying his defensive snipe based on Unsworth’s “several untruths” and because the diver told him his idea was terrible.

That’s the kind of thing you shouldn’t say even if you’re not the face of Tesla Motors—and if you are, all the worse. Musk should know better than to throw a hissy-fit over Twitter. And yet, he doesn’t, or at least didn’t. If his apology is any indication, he’s sorry only because it brought him and Tesla more bad press, not because he’s genuinely contrite about making callous, unjustifiable accusations about a man trying to rescue young children.

What’s so unsettling about the awful words of Elon Musk and the above-named individuals is that they are accompanied by a lack of true remorse and/or excuses for their questionable choices. Roseanne Barr claims she didn’t even know Valerie Jarrett was black when she made her infamous comment, and that it was her vote for Donald Trump which doomed her show. John Schnatter, already in the habit of making excuses by blaming the NFL for lower earnings, has tried to justify his use of the N-word on the basis that he didn’t use it as a slur. Mark Zuckerberg professes he never meant to defend the intent of Holocaust deniers—except he totally did. These explanations ring hollow, and arguably exacerbate the controversy in each case. Don’t try to hedge. Just admit you messed up, say you’re sorry, and hope that people will forgive you.

Likewise disconcerting is the idea that these antics either have or continue to run the risk of overshadowing a great product. What’s more, if there is a lesson to be gleaned from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, it’s that no one should be considered impervious to consequences for their actions. Whether the damage people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. have done to their careers is truly long-term remains to be seen, but either way, theirs is not the kind of potential damage to one’s brand and career that one wishes to invite. In a day and age when corporate social responsibility is more than a passing concern and when privacy seems to be on a continuous decline, the same can be said for the likes of Musk, Schnatter, and Zuckerberg.

Do Social Media Companies Care about Curbing Hate Speech and Abuse?

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Abuse, harassment, hate speech, and threats of violence are all too common online and through social media. It’s not as if tech companies are unaware of this, either, and this makes their inaction all the more frustrating. (Image retrieved from kdvr.com.)

Social media has the power to bring people together in ways we could have only dreamt of centuries or even decades ago. It allows users to share intimate moments and milestones with their family and friends. It affords people a way to re-connect with those with whom they’ve lost touch, or simply to connect with loved ones in times of crisis. It permits you to, um, Poke people and send game requests to individuals you met some five years ago in an Eastern Religions course in college. OK, so not all uses of social media are as worthwhile as others, but for everything from breaking news stories to umpteen baby pictures, social media services help foster connections between people across cable lines and potentially across great distances as well as across demographic lines. In the ability of these apps/sites to bring people together, however, we realize this connectivity has the potential to be a blessing and a curse. While we would presume most users use sites like Facebook and Google and Twitter with the intention of spreading goodwill and cheer—or at least seeking sympathy when they are not so full of cheer—there are those who seem to use social media for no other purpose than spreading hate, harassing and intimidating others, and deliberately picking fights. I’m sure you have encountered your fair share of Internet trolls, from the moderately pesky ones to those who challenge you to come find them at their house and see if you still feel like making your same arguments. In this respect, social media tends to feel like a minefield across which you are advised to tread lightly for fear of igniting an explosive situation.

Keeping with the theme of confrontational discourse between individuals of disparate personal stories and viewpoints, another byproduct of the interconnectedness of our world, alongside users’ relative anonymity, is that people will readily advocate and say things online they wouldn’t imagine saying out loud in everyday life given the apparent lack of impunity for their actions. Here is where the epithets, insults, mockery, and threats really start flying. Given the cloak of limited visibility the Internet provides, individual users can set forth all sorts of body-shaming, homo- and trans-phobic, politically bigoted, racist, sexist, vulgar, xenophobic, and otherwise discriminatory or unsavory language. And when they band together to form a unified front of nastiness, the collective hate they spew can be a destructive, alienating force. Numerous high-profile users in recent memory have announced their departure from social media (at least temporarily), citing abuse or threats against them and their family as motivating factors. The likes of Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, at that. We all know the fabled notion sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. These are different times, however, and depending on the mental make-up of the recipient of these proverbial sticks and stones, the brunt may be hard to bear indeed, if not impossible. Suicides among teens and preteens have become all too prevalent outcomes from prolonged, targeted cyberbullying. In some cases, the abuse continues on social media even after the individual has taken his or her own life.

As with the sale and use of guns in mass shootings, the issue of liability for the manufacturer/provider in online interactions via social media is a sticky one. In a society as litigious as ours and otherwise accustomed to scapegoating, the impetus is frequently on assigning culpability on someone or something. With respect to the former, and depending on one’s point of view, it’s the fault of the maker of the gun for creating a dangerous weapon that could be bought and handled by a general public ill-equipped to operate it safely; it’s the fault of the parents of the child for not taking better care to safeguard the firearm; it’s the fault of the gun lobby for preventing sensible gun reform; it’s the fault of the anti-gun activists that we don’t have more guns in schools to prevent such a tragedy. Round and round we go in the Blame Game—where we stop, nobody knows. With social media and cyberbullying, on one hand, there is the idea that today’s young people and celebrities are too pampered and thin-skinned. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Besides, no one forced these kids to keep using social media in the face of the abuse. Shouldn’t their parents have been watching what their kids were doing anyway?

On the other hand, meanwhile, whereas mass shootings may have a rather short preamble in terms of shooters making their intentions known to friends or family, with targeted harassment on social media, the patterns of abuse can take place over a protracted period of time. Granted, when minors are the subject of cyberbullying, from the user perspective, their parent(s) or guardian(s) may not comprehend the scope of the torment their child faces, especially when he or she is less than forthcoming about the nature of the problem. From across the screen, however, the purveyors of various popular social media services can witness what is going on, and this tension between creating an environment where users can feel safe in their online interactions and maximizing traffic to associated apps and sites is at the crux of the matter. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter find themselves performing a balancing act between safeguarding their audiences and maintaining the appearance of being unbiased and hospitable to all users. This wouldn’t seem like such a tough tug-of-war but for a rejection of diversity, multiculturalism and political correctness on the far right, as well as an apparent growing tendency toward hostility in discussions where personalities and viewpoints clash regardless of political affiliation.

In talking about the tightrope that social media companies walk with respect to fair play vs. revenue—a dilemma that quite generally seems to be faced by corporate entities, of which the primary goal is profit/expansion, and of which social responsibility is a more recent derivation (and hopefully not an afterthought)—this implies that the big names in the industry are capable and willing enough to err on the side of caution for the sake of their most vulnerable users. But are they really? This is where there is room for debate in online circles, for many would allege these content providers are not doing enough to thwart cyberbullying and the dissemination of questionable content. Brianna Provenzano, staff writer at Mic, would tend to agree, a subject of angry, hate-filled messages herself. Recently, Provenzano had dared to ask Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative provocateur and all-around dickhead, if he got an invite to the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards—because MTV says they sure as hell didn’t ask for him to be there. Whereupon Yiannopoulos kindly told Provenzano to “F**k off,” posted their E-mail exchange on his Facebook page, and let his followers do the work for him. Provenzano describes the situation thusly:

Milo hadn’t called for blood outright, but the angry mob showed up anyway. The sound you hear when you kick the hornet’s nest in Milo-land is an angry crescendo of bees in Fred Perry polos, crawling out of their social media honeycombs to sling insults about how your full name sounds like two cheeses alongside more venomous darts about your intellect, your body and your career.

Yiannopoulos has 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and after he posted my email, the swarm infiltrated my Twitter and my Facebook inbox too. A few stragglers found their way into my Instagram comments. A phone call with Facebook representatives yielded no action. They told me they’re aware Yiannopoulos has figured out a way to game the system, pulling certain levers to summon his goons without running afoul of their harassment policies. But Facebook’s guidelines, as they currently exist, are cut-and-dry: Milo might be indirectly inciting harassment, but as long as he doesn’t call for it explicitly, his speech is protected. The post is still up.

The bad news, though, is that his followers seem to be taking his lead. Beneath the screengrab of our email exchange, one commenter wrote, “His minions are emailing her at this very moment, detailing how they’re going to rape her.” Is alluding to my rape the same thing as calling for it outright? Free-speech guidelines are tricky like that. The bottom line: Though internet trolls are evolving, Facebook’s harassment protections are not.

Talk about walking a fine line. Whereas sites like Facebook are concerned with walking on eggshells so as not to alienate potential drivers of traffic, someone like Milo Yiannopoulos is walking the line on Facebook’s harassment policy by not telling his supporters to avenge him for some perceived slight, but nonetheless achieving the desire effect by letting them know how he was so aggrieved, posting Brianna Provenzano’s contact information in doing so, and letting the chips fall where they may. This hearkens back to our central discussion of accountability, and the ensuing dialog is a tricky one, indeed. True, Milo isn’t pulling the trigger. All the same, he’s effectively giving his followers the loaded gun and telling them where to shoot. As for Facebook, if it’s supposed to be the police, it’s hiding behind a rationale of insufficient evidence of a crime. Very clearly, though, the intent to cause ill will is there. What’s more, Facebook itself seems to indicate that it understands that’s what Yiannopoulous is doing, but that its hands are tied. Where the analogy ends, however, is in the notion that Facebook not only enforces the rules, but writes them too. As such, it is within its power to either adopt stricter policies against harassment and abuse within its platform, or to interpret their guidelines more broadly and consider that inaction under the guise of neutrality carries risk in its own right.

The unfortunate pattern for social media apps/sites given evidence of abuse seems to be this: 1) individual becomes target for verbal attacks and threats of bodily harm; 2) social media providers stand idly by while “evidence” accumulates; 3) public outcry forces attention to the harassment; 4) by drawing attention to the issue, abuse increases; 5) content provider is forced to intervene by suspending accounts or some other method of remediation. What makes this cycle especially unfortunate is that aspects of it are by no means guaranteed. For one, public outcry is obviously more likely for public figures and people of relative renown. As for social media sites swooping in and coming to the rescue, so to speak, this decision may come too late—if it comes at all. In Brianna Provenzano’s case, without writing about her situation, it is unlikely anyone beyond close friends and family and loyal Mic readers would know she has been met with all kinds of invectives at the hands of rabid alt-righters. In addition, as of this writing and her writing, it appears she will see no meaningful resolution from Facebook. Indeed, to have that happen would the best-case scenario, and even then, it necessitates some sort of wrongdoing on the part of another party—potentially over a considerable span and from many quasi-anonymous sources.

As Provenzano is keen to observe, female reporters are frequent targets of abuse merely for reporting on the kind of misogynistic abuse faced by other women, thereby creating an awful circle by which the writer becomes the subject. As she also observes, women of color and members of the LGBT community tend to be hit particularly hard by harassment over social media, and in some cases, it is the content providers themselves who discriminate against members of minority groups or fail to properly moderate content in a way that projects fairness for all users. In an illustration of how seemingly broken Facebook’s system of content moderation is, black activist Ijeoma Oluo posted a tongue-in-cheek comment about going to a Cracker Barrel for the first time, seeing a bunch of white people in cowboy hats, and wondering if they’d “let [her] black ass walk out of there.”

Apparently, a number of people who read her entry didn’t take kindly to her commentary on race relations, for before long, she began to receive a torrent of hate-filled messages. Days’ worth of abuse ensued, with Oluo taking screenshots of the kinds of epithets hurled her way and reporting the harassment to Facebook. At long last, though, the company and its content moderators intervened. There was only one small problem: it was Oluo who had her account suspended for posting the evidence of her abuse. Facebook representatives later apologized for what they characterized as a mistake, but by then, the damage was done. Besides, Ijeoma Oluo’s experience is not an isolated incident, and is evocative of a running theme: that of social media companies being slow or otherwise inadequate to respond to reports of abuse at the hands of other users. It would appear, at least in this instance, that Facebook was unable to handle the magnitude and truth of what was happening any more than Oluo’s tormentors could accept the reality and scope of racism in America.


In the closing of her piece, Brianna Provenzano notes that sites like Facebook have acted when members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and their ilk have led campaigns encouraging targeted abuse against specific users or otherwise have promoted a racist agenda. Twitter, for example, suspended Milo Yiannopoulos’ account after he directed his followers to attack Leslie Jones with racist images and words. Both GoDaddy and Google Domains dropped The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi online publication, after the violence at Charlottesville. These actions took place only after days or longer of offenders spewing their hate, however, and only with the requisite amount of public backlash demanding these service providers do something. From the companies’ perspective, what truly warranted intervention were the negative reputation they stood to receive from all the bad publicity and the consequential loss of revenue associated with their loss of standing. As Provenzano puts it re Facebook:

As long as capitalism is in charge, the historically marginalized groups hurt most by Facebook’s slipshod harassment protections should expect to continue to bear the burden of a failing system.

In other words, the bottom is line is just that: about the companies’ bottom lines. Concerning another recent iteration of the social commentary vs. corporate interests at the intersection of race relations, ESPN personality Jemele Hill made news for a series of Tweets she authored related to President Donald Trump, in which she unequivocally labeled Trump a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists and whose rise can be attributed to white supremacy. Predictably, a backlash occurred from Trump supporters and from the man himself, with many calling for her suspension or outright firing, and with POTUS desiring an apology from the network in addition to whatever Hill might have offered. In the end, it was Hill alone who issued an apology for “crossing the line” with her political opinions.

For many of us discerning individuals, however, Hill’s statements weren’t particularly controversial. This is to say that calling Donald Trump a white supremacist surrounded by white supremacists and supported by them isn’t really that much of a stretch. Lord knows what Trump feels and believes deep down, but after a point, it doesn’t matter when he’s ginning up racists and white nationalists. Jemele Hill is ostensibly right on these points, and thus it would appear her most grievous sin is working for a corporation—recall ESPN exists under the Disney Corp. banner—that squelches opinions when they fear they could alienate a certain segment of their viewership/readership. And just imagine what kind of abuse Hill will be subject to now that she is in the spotlight and in the crosshairs of Internet trolls. When the angry mob threatens to pull its dollars away, corporate America has signaled, by and large, that it will kowtow to its wishes.

With advances in computer and mobile phone technology, use of social media platforms has exploded over the last half-decade, and for the most part, the benefits of these media in terms of professional networking and socialization are to be celebrated. For many companies who provide social media interfaces, however, their ability and willingness to curb cyberbullying and online harassment has lagged behind the industry’s apparent growth, and this reality detracts from the user experience for the general public, regardless of gender, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or other identifying factor(s). To ask potential targets for abuse to “grin and bear it” or to “just log off” is as impractical as it is an abdication of duty for the companies who are supposed to provide a safe space for their subscribers as a function of their conduct policies. Simply put, if social media giants like Facebook and Twitter wish to show they truly care about cracking down against hate speech and other forms of abuse, they need to do better—or risk losing more than just individual celebrities from their ranks.