Civil Rights Groups Stick It to Facebook with Pro-Censorship Boycott

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Zuckerberg at Austin's 2008 SXSW. (Wired Photostream via Flickr)
Liberal nonprofits are spearheading an illiberal effort to make Facebook censor its users more than it already does, encouraging the site's advertisers to jump ship during a July ad boycott.

Consider this karmic boomerang: Back in 2018, Facebook supported the passage of free-speech-trampling federal legislation known as FOSTA/SESTA, which effectively made adult ads and anything resembling them illegal in the U.S., resulting in a panic wave of censorship and self-censorship across the internet.

Two years later, a coalition of progressive non-profits, some with heavy historical clout, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), have organized a massive ad boycott of Facebook and its subsidiaries, hash-tagged, #StopHateforProfit.  Reportedly, more than 1,000 companies — including such marquee names as Coca-Cola, Ford and Starbucks —  have agreed to withhold ad revenues from Facebook for the month of July in an effort to banish hate speech from the site.

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Ex-ACLU President Nadine Strossen: “[The] rationales for censorship are always the same,” regardless of the target. (David Shankbone via Flickr)
Cynics like Politico‘s Jack Shafer and Izabella Kaminska at the Financial Times  have suggested that, in the midst of a pandemic, a recession and a summer slog, such corporate virtue-signaling with its 30-day expiration date is relatively painless for the businesses involved and will only marginally affect Facebook’s $70 billion in annual revenue.

Predictably, The New York Times has championed the growing list of part-time boycotters, and the nonprofits have so-far spurned Facebook-pappy Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to mollify them.

But reality may be setting in. As the uber-lefty Guardian recently lamented, Facebook has endured outrage and boycotts before, and it “seems unlikely that Facebook will fundamentally change.” Another bad sign for the boycott: the Biden campaign has said thanks-but-no-thanks, refusing to “cede” Facebook to Trump, while offering sympathy for the boycott’s goals.

Unfortunately, those goals involve the imposition of a far-reaching program of censorship, ostensibly to eradicate white supremacy and other cherry-picked societal ills from the site, such as climate-change denialism and rabble-rousing Tweets from America’s race-baiter-in-chief.

True, Zuckerberg’s checkered track record on free speech seems largely guided by his bank book. But the Stop Hate for Profit campaign deserves a jaundiced eye, too, since, as civil libertarians like to point out, the urge to suppress lawful speech is ultimately self-defeating. Not to mention autocratic.

Thought Cops on Patrol

The nonprofit coalition pushing the boycott has a 10-point list of demands for Facebook that makes it almost sound as if they want to run Zuck’s company for him.

For instance, in an interview withThe New York Times, Rashad Robinson, executive director for the group Color of Change, one of the coalition’s partners, expressed his exasperation with Zuckerberg following a meeting between the dewy-faced tech titan and the boycott’s organizers.

“It’s so frustrating,” he despaired. “We are doing a lot of work for a multibillion-dollar company and it’s just always dispiriting we have to do this for them because they won’t do it for themselves.”

The coalition’s demands, if implemented, would require a Herculean effort in pursuit of a dubious aim: the purification of  Facebook’s content to the point of acceptability from the POV of progressive groups like Robinson’s.

This would include, “a permanent civil rights infrastructure including C-suite level executive with civil rights expertise to evaluate products and policies for discrimination, bias, and hate.” (Note: Zuckerberg has promised to make such a hire, though this has not come close to satisfying  the nonprofits.)

When it comes to the actual policing of speech, the coalition casts a net wide enough to envelop a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, using terms that are largely open to interpretation.

Under the heading of “Decency,” demand number four reads, “Find and remove public and private groups focused on white supremacy, militia, antisemitism, violent conspiracies, Holocaust denialism, vaccine misinformation, and climate denialism. ”

Climate denialism? That might exclude a good chunk of the modern Republican Party, which no doubt would be fine with many lefties.

Over the phone, Front Page Confidential read the coalition’s fourth commandment  to Nadine Strossen, former ACLU president and author of HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship.

You could practically hear the sound of her head swaying in disbelief.

“Unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, some of those concepts are so vague and contestable. Probably all of them are when you start thinking about it.”

Strossen, a tenured law prof at New York Law School, warned that the enforcement of these prohibitions would likely be over-inclusive.

“Some people who are engaging in legitimate debate are going to be kicked off,” she said.

Apparently, this is what happened in June when Facebook targeted neo-Nazi skinhead accounts for removal and ended up also suspending the accounts of hundreds of anti-racist skinheads, known as SHARPs, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.

At the time, Techdirt editor Mike Masnick used this as an example of what he calls “Masnick’s Impossibility Theorem,” which posits that “content moderation at scale is impossible to do well.

In fact, this dilemma is one reason Facebook has had such difficulty keeping illegal content off its site, much less subjectively-defined legal categories, such as hate speech.

The Speech You Don’t Like

So-called hate speech, or speech targeting people on the basis of race, religion, sex, etc., is generally protected by the First Amendment, which forbids the government from passing laws abridging freedom of speech.

But while you may have the right to say what you wish (save for a few well-defined exceptions), you don’t have the right to say it on Facebook. In a new epilogue to HATE, Strossen observes that “far from restraining online companies’ speech-restricting policies,” the First Amendment actually “protects any such policies as an exercise of the companies’ own free speech.”

The First Amendment also protects boycotts like the one organized against Facebook by the ADL and the NAACP, according to Christopher Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, who spoke to Front Page Confidential for this piece.

Finan noted that one of the seminal decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court on boycotts involved the NAACP, the 1982 case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., in which the court ruled an NAACP-led boycott of white-owned businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi to be protected speech.

“I think there’s no question that they are trying to pressure Facebook to take down content that they don’t like,” Finan said. “And Facebook has the right to publish the content it wants to publish.”

He likened the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign to conservative groups in the 1980s that boycotted TV networks to get them to drop racy TV shows, and chain stores such as 7-11 to remove Penthouse and Playboy from their shelves.

While these actions were “First Amendment-protected activities,”  according to Finan, “the goal was actually censorship.”

In Strossen’s conversation with Front Page Confidential, the free speech stalwart explained that “the rationales for censorship are always the same,” as are the flaws in those rationales, whether the speech targeted concerns porn, depictions of violence, misinformation or hate speech.

“Every single one of these censorial drives was based on the assumption, never demonstrated, that the message has some harmful impact,” she said.

Trump’s looting/shooting comment on Twitter, with warning label.(Screenshot via Twitter)

Indeed, in various public statements, the boycott’s organizers equate protected speech with danger, violence or harm.

For example, in one Tweet, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote the following:

“Facebook touts they catch 89% of hateful posts before someone reports them. For comparison, a car company can’t say 89% of their seat belts work. When it comes to fighting hate and keeping people safe you have to be 100%.”

But the difference between, say, a 40-ton semi slamming into a Honda Accord while the latter’s driver is sans seat belt and someone verbally attacking another person online is, literally, life and death.

As Greenblatt no doubt knows, illegal speech, say, speech that could incite “imminent lawless action,” has been proscribed by the Supreme Court, but what many people characterize as “hate speech,” like most speech, remains shielded by the First Amendment.

The Trump Effect

Admittedly, Facebook and its subsidiaries are the gateway for some pretty odious content, everything from live-streamed mass killings to child sexual abuse material. Facebook execs claim the company spends “billions of dollars a year” trying to keep such dreck off its site, comply with the law and police its terms of use.

For the first quarter of this year, Facebook reported that it had removed almost 10 million pieces of content  for hate speech violations of its terms of use.

Not enough, say the boycott’s organizers.

A two-year audit commissioned by Facebook — done at the behest of the nonprofits — praised Zuck & Co. on the one hand for changing many of its policies to address the concerns of civil rights satraps. On the other, it savaged Facebook, largely for its treatment of certain controversial posts by President Trump regarding mail-in ballots and the George Floyd protests.

The most inflammatory of these included Trump’s infamous May 28 promise to crack down on looters in Minneapolis if Minnesota Governor Tim Walz didn’t do so first, stating, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Twitter slapped that same statement with a warning, but Zuck left it up as is, basically because the statement is plainly newsworthy. In a May 29 Facebook post, Zuckerberg described his “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s language, and explained the reasoning behind his decision not to hit delete.

“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open,” he wrote.

Civil rights activists’ heads have been self-combusting ever since, and they’ve directed their indignation at Zuck as much as Trump. Zuckerberg’s own employees staged a virtual walkout in response to his stance. And the authors of the study he paid for treated him to the corporate version of a hot-lead enema, relating how Trump’s looting/shooting statement derived from a racist Southern police chief during the civil rights era.

The study also takes aim at Zuckerberg for a speech he gave in October 2019 at Georgetown University, wherein he made the classic liberal case that the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech, stating, “In general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”

According to the study, by virtue of that stance, Zuckerberg has created a “hierarchy of speech,” in which a post by POTUS outranks that of the average Facebook user.

But Zuck didn’t elevate Trump to the White House, the American people did. And, like it or not, whatever he says is news. Still, lefties have been calling for Facebook and other social media companies to deplatform Trump since he got elected, as if that will change the reality of his living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Magical thinking, at its dimmest.

Size Matters

At the time Front Page Confidential spoke with Strossen, she had only read about Facebook’s civil rights report, not the report itself, so she declined to opine on it. But she disagreed with removing Trump’s comments altogether, arguing that there are two sides to freedom of speech, Trump’s right to speak and the audience’s right to hear.

This duality, she said, goes to “the essence of self-governance” and is essential for our democracy to function.”

To put it another way, if the U.S. President is a racist jerk and wants to make that plain in a Facebook post or even multiple Facebook posts, Americans need to be confronted with that ugliness. And if he lies or relays disinformation, that, too, is something Americans should see and respond to.

That doesn’t free Zuck from the briar patch, mind you. When it comes to freedom of speech, Zuckerberg has been an inconsistent steward, to say the least.

He talked a good game at Georgetown in 2019. But earlier that same year, Zuck penned an op-ed for The Washington Post  calling for a “more active role for government and regulators” concerning “harmful content.”

Talk about intellectual whiplash.

More recently,  Zuckerberg’s made stabs at appeasing the nonprofits, including giving ground on the labeling of posts by politicians. But the nonprofits have nothing but raspberries for the king of Facebook.

Zuck’s ace in the hole?  Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, and 2.6 billion users worldwide log into Facebook on a monthly basis.

So it ain’t going anywhere, a fact signified by the continued, active presence on the site of the official pages for the ADL, the NAACP and other groups organizing the boycott.

“I’m sure Facebook won’t do a thing to touch them either,” NCAC’s Finan told Front Page Confidential.

“It is ironic,” he said. “But, you know, everybody needs Facebook.”

For more on this topic, please see:
Senate Dems Crap Out on Protecting Free Speech, Help Vote Revised EARN It Act Out of Judiciary Committee
and
Melissa Gira Grant and Mike Masnick Slam DOJ’s CityXGuide Bust

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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