Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest men in the world, looks a worried man these days. This month, his company, Facebook, is up against what could be the most important boycott by advertisers in history. The original call launched by several American civil rights associations and titled “Stop Hate For Profit” has already been joined by companies such as The North Face, Patagonia, Verizon, Unilever, Ford or Pepsi, while others, like Coca-Cola and Microsoft have put their advertising on social networks on hold for the moment. Zuckerberg has already apologized and promised changes, but the problem is we’ve heard it all before:
internally, the founder has reportedly said that “Facebook is not gonna change” and told staff that he “expects advertisers to return soon enough”.
Contrary to what many people think, the boycott is not specifically about Donald Trump encouraging violence and hate speech, which other social networks, such as Twitter, have responded to. Instead, the boycott is about longstanding issues. Social networks are supposed to be a public forum where a wide range of thinking, news and ideas are shared at very different levels. The problem is that most have descended to the level of the gutter and are simply a space for trading insults, fake news and conspiracy theories.
Facebook discovered long ago that this kind of behavior was to its advantage. At difficult times like the present, people are spending more time on social networks, which leads to more advertising revenue. When you participate in a heated political discussion, you characterize yourself much more than you think, and you provide valuable data to companies to manage their advertising, with the result that those companies, on the one hand, increase their efforts to sell you their products or services, and on the other hand, Facebook can sell your profile, better characterized, at a higher price. Nice work if you can get it.
Some time ago, Facebook learned that its algorithms are polarizing. Internal documents reveal that the company decided to take advantage of this tendency. Social welfare, the balance between different positions, or the quality of democracy, are all subject to corporate profit. Mark Zuckerberg, faced with the choice of Facebook becoming the focus of campaigns involving armies of trolls and fake profiles managed by foreign powers, a place that targeted many of the people who voted for Trump, clearly opted for the most profitable decision. Facebook had clear rules about how the platform should be used, but they’ve been re-written to suit the needs of the current incumbent of the White House.
Facebook now faces boycott that could cost it millions of dollars… or not, because although large companies invest a lot of money in advertising, the Facebook platform is also used by countless SMEs that take a more pragmatic approach, and who can see the opportunity for their ads to stand out more during the boycott. But beyond the consequences for Facebook, what we are increasingly talking about is society’s reaction to a way of thinking and doing things, toward the populism of Trump, Bolsonaro or Putin, leaders whose countries top the COVID-19 mortality toll.
Donald Trump’s popularity is at a new low: his promise to “make America great again” has produced a country ravaged by a pandemic, wrought with racial tensions, with unemployment rising and now in the midst of a severe economic crisis. As one commentator recently pointed out, if Trump had been in power during WWII, we’d all be speaking German now. In recent weeks, he has seen Twitter remove, hide or qualify several of his frantic and vitriolic updates. Earlier this week, several of his followers’ forums on Reddit were closed and his videos were removed from Twitch.
This isn’t just about Facebook: perhaps this could be the end of a way of thinking, of a populism that in many countries has dominated the last decade, but which could be about to burn itself out.
Let’s hope so.
Previously published on medium.com and is republished here under permission.
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