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Facebook is the new tobacco

If you care about human rights and racial justice, don’t work there

As the global movement against racial injustice precipitated by George Floyd’s brutal killing continues unabated this summer, Duke students have begun the arduous and necessary task of mobilizing, reading and unlearning racist superstructures required to convert the intensity of the current environment into a lasting anti-racist movement. The horrific scenes of police brutality strung out on the screens of every American last month were no different than abuses of years past, but after watching the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of moral depravity that occurred in Minneapolis, America’s galvanization out of its collective stupor seemed only natural, if not totally unsurprising.

Throughout the rapid escalation of protest and public outcry, I have been particularly inspired by our generation’s unwillingness to be confined or limited in our fight for change. From monuments to school curriculums, reparations to city council races, America has been forced to stop and reevaluate the foundations of its social, political and economic frameworks. Institutions and corporations that have lived free from scrutiny are now under the microscope for their roles in perpetuating systemic racism. 

I want to talk about one such company: Facebook. If you read newspapers or watch late-night television, you’ve probably already seen a scathing critique of the social media giant. It’s been bashed for its mishandling of fake news, complete disregard for consumer privacy, and complicity in subverting the 2016 election, and deservedly so. In this moment of nationwide reckoning over the original sin of American white supremacy, however, it is more important than ever to examine Facebook’s specific role in suppressing and perpetuating violence against black and brown communities at home and abroad. 

Facebook’s public reputation has been sinking for years, but it has largely avoided associations with racial injustice as criticism came mostly from the privacy and technology policy communities. That is no longer the case. On June 17th, a coalition of civil rights organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP organized the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, an ad boycott aimed at bringing the seemingly unassailable company to the negotiating table. The campaign specifically targets Facebook for  “promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.” and hopes it can convince enough corporations to suspend advertising on the platform for Facebook to adopt its 10-point plan for combating misinformation and hate speech.

When I encountered the boycott on Twitter I was pessimistic about its prospects. Similar grassroots campaigns have failed previously. #DeleteFacebook has trended multiple times to no avail. But by the time of this writing, over 500 companies, including Unilever, Verizon, Ford, Volkswagen and Sony have joined the movement and suspended advertising on Facebook for a month.

The campaign’s early success is heartening and long overdue. While police unions, qualified immunity and broken windows theory deserve their judgment in the public spotlight, the Menlo Park behemoth has been allowed to operate and lobby outside of the context of its appalling human rights record for far too long. 

Facebook allowed the Russian Government to target African Americans by spreading “racially divisive and racist content” on its platforms according to reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Even after Facebook learned the Russian-linked accounts were using specific voter-suppression tactics aimed at depressing the black vote, the company made no move to intervene citing its longstanding neutrality in political affairs. Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a digitally focused racial justice organization, criticized the company following the release of the reports for “treating everything as being on two sides of a political coin,” a reference to Facebook’s history of profiting off falsehoods and hate speech that generate clicks. 

Facebook facilitated an ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, refusing to update its content moderation policies to prevent blatant human rights abuses from military commanders and prominent politicians. After the story broke, the company dragged its feet and remained hostile towards civil advocate groups. 

Facebook’s tolerance of white nationalists was outrageous before and wholly indefensible now. However, despite renewed calls for a wholesale reform of its guidelines, it remains easier than ever for white nationalists to mobilize on (and Facebook to profit from) the platform. 

Despite massive public criticism, Facebook has continued to inadequately invest in content moderation, relegating its efforts to contain hate speech and misinformation to underpaid and understaffed offices in remote locations. The company made its priorities clear last October when Mark Zuckerberg responded to bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill by doubling down on Facebook’s refusal to moderate political speech, even when it violated community guidelines. 

For years, civil rights advocates warned Facebook that the platform was being used as a weapon of hate against their communities. Often, the problem was hate speech. Other times it took the form of harassment and endangerment of Black Lives Matter activists. Guided by an extremist free-speech ideology, Facebook did nothing to prevent its events pages from organizing explicitly anti-Muslim rallies and the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, it concentrated its resources to transform into an advertising business, bringing in tens of billions of dollars annually while failing to apply the desperately requested civil rights guidelines that could have prevented those ads from fomenting discrimination. When the company was asked to respond to the boycott, Facebook’s VP of Northern Europe only managed “when there’s hate in the world there will also be hate on Facebook.”

Purposeful negligence and ideological aversion to oversight should remind us of a similarly reprehensible industry that has been a foundational aspect of Duke since its inception: the tobacco industry. 

Facebook is potentially as detrimental to humanity as Big Tobacco ever was. It has certainly used the same corporate playbook. Both profited from falsehoods. Both pushed products intentionally designed to be addictive. Both deceptively targeted developing markets. The main difference, however, is that Facebook’s cancer is not reserved for the lungs, but society. Contributing to its “disinformation-for-profit machine,” as described by Elizabeth Warren, merits the same professional stigma reserved for marketing a pack of cigarettes. 

No Duke undergraduate would dare be caught jostling for a Phillip Morris or Altria interview. There is a basic agreement among our generation that they are deeply unethical companies, and no paycheck could justify the social cost of contributing to their bottom lines. Put another way, Big Tobacco is undeserving of our community’s talent. 

Facebook is as well. 

Facebook’s inherent attractiveness as an industry titan will not disappear overnight and changing its corporate culture will require a groundswell of support. That needs to start at the university level where a Facebook cubicle is one of the most coveted landing areas for Duke graduates. While the boycott campaign is an important first step, it will only last for the month of July, and most companies cannot afford to relinquish ad revenue indefinitely. That is why only 1 in 4 similar campaigns historically lead to concessions from the targeted businesses. 

While fighting against potentially the most influential non-state actor in the history of the world seems daunting, we should not sell ourselves short. Facebook recruits over half its employees from top 10 schools. Stopping that source would have an immediate and jolting effect and the resulting brain drain would limit the company’s innovative potential and long-term growth. I understand that to many this would mean losing a dream job. In my one year at Duke I have met multiple kind, thoughtful people that plan on joining the company in the fall. That’s fine. But if Black Lives really Matter to you, then don’t work for Facebook. 

Alex Hoffman is a Trinity sophomore majoring in Public Policy and Spanish.

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