The printed press is not a natural ally of Facebook. Silicon Valley publishers have hoovered up so much advertising that they are seen by newspapers as a mortal enemy. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has ended up with more power over people’s attention than any press mogul. A slight change in his algorithms can direct millions towards any publication or argument. Facebook might not want to be seen as a publisher (especially one that did so much to enable Donald Trump, for instance) but it has ended up becoming the biggest player in the information wars.
So when certain advertisers started to pull out of the social media platform — citing the ‘divisive’ content it hosts — newspapers were thrilled. The reaction is understandable, but misguided. The rise of politicised corporations, which are moving away from their previous neutrality and taking sides in culture wars, is a threat to all publishers. It has implications for press freedom and the variety of opinion available to the public. And it is a battle that will be with us for some time.
Advertisers say they are abandoning Facebook to preserve neutrality and avoid being seen to associate with outré opinions. This rationale overlooks a fairly basic point: advertising is not endorsement. It is absurd to think that a newspaper advertiser agrees with every article in its pages. The failure to understand or make this point drags companies down a murky path, where they have to make clear which opinions they do agree with. Soon they will find themselves laying out their own manifestos, which risk
In this way, firms that would never dream of expressing a preference for a political party are bullied by online trolls who accuse them of ‘funding’ incorrect opinions. Even the Guardian has recently been the target of an absurd online petition protesting against its foundation on profits from slavery and its failure to support Lincoln in the American civil war. Publications including this magazine can (and do) ban advertisers who attempt to exert editorial pressure. But the fact that such pressure exists is a threat to diversity of opinion.
Take Color of Change, one of the organisations campaigning for companies to stop advertising on social media. In common with Black Lives Matter, one of its goals is to ‘defund the police’. To that end, it is also pressuring Netflix to remove cop shows on the grounds that they ‘heroise the police’. It is also making the extraordinary demand that Donald Trump is removed from Twitter, which would in effect silence a serving President of the United States.
Another group behind the campaign is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which is pressuring Facebook to establish a ‘permanent infrastructure to evaluate products and policies for discrimination, bias and hate’ — a demand so vague that it could amount to banning the sale of anything to which it takes exception. NAACP wants Facebook to ‘find and remove public and private groups’ focused on what it calls ‘climate denialism’. In other words, it is asking the company to police debate over climate science. Or to police it in one sense: it wants Facebook to take down material which is sceptical about some of the claims made for climate change.
Most worrying of all, the NAACP is demanding that Facebook remove ‘information related to voting’. It wants to police democracy. All kinds of claims are made in political debate, and it is the right — indeed the duty — of political opponents to test each other’s claims and policies to destruction. It is not the job of an internet platform, any more than it was the job of printers and printing unions in pre-internet days, to try to censor that debate. It is vital that everyone standing for political office is able to get their voice heard, without being silenced by self-appointed arbiters of truth.
There is of course an awful lot of nonsense on the internet. There are conspiracies galore, fake news and information planted to mislead. But the truth can stand up for itself; it does not need to be enforced by Facebook, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign or anyone else. In a free market for information, everyone can learn whom to trust and whom to ignore. We won’t end up with more reliable information if we try to police free speech — as attempts at censorship always prove. Instead we will end up with propaganda which matches the objectives of those who are in charge of the policing process.
Some businesses are opening themselves to ridicule. Among those who have cancelled advertising on Facebook for July is Volks-wagen. A company caught cheating on emissions tests ought to think twice about joining a campaign which seeks to prevent others from spreading ‘dangerous disinformation’.
It is the internet — via easy-to-use platforms such as Facebook — that has democratised the media, weakening the power of the big players and giving everyone the opportunity to broadcast their thoughts and feelings. Left-wing campaign groups have been among the chief beneficiaries. No one should applaud attempts to close down those with whom they disagree.