Another shocking police shooting has set off a new wave of protests against police brutality across the United States. This has become an all-too-common occurrence in the US, but in an election year like this, with a President like Donald Trump, things are different — and, once again, Facebook is right in the middle of it all.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old showed up to protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake to ‘defend’ Kenosha from what he believed to be the throes of anarchy. He brought an assault rifle, killed two people and maimed another, and is now being charged with murder. A few days earlier, Blake was shot seven times in the back by police at point-blank range, in front of his children.
A Facebook group run by a self-described militia had been encouraging conservatives to go to Kenosha to ‘defend’ it from the Black Lives Matter protesters. Right this second, there are posts all over Facebook praising the shooter as a hero. Beyond being truly vile, their very existence on the platform, now several days after the shooting, shows a certain level of negligence.
It’s the same story in Portland, Oregon, where protests have been ongoing for more than three months. The last weekend in August saw a Trump-supporting caravan drive through the city — and through Black Lives Matter protests, literally — that had been both organised on Facebook and had several posts encouraging people to come ‘locked and loaded’. Some did, and someone got killed.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but between this, the company’s handling of misinformation globally, and its myriad issues around the world, it’s hard to see how Facebook can continue to slide by.
If this all sounds familiar for people in India, it should. Company executives in Facebook’s largest market (by user) are embroiled in controversy around content moderation, accusations of ‘censorship’ of certain political views, and questionable handling of political content more broadly — and it is not doing well.
All of this is heightened in the US because of COVID-19-related restrictions on events. There will be a few in-person political rallies between now and November 3, but the fall off from any normal election year is stark. That means digital-first campaigns — and that means Facebook is even more important than it would be in a normal election cycle.
Reporting on internal memo leaks from Facebook do not inspire confidence. At an all-hands meeting after the Kenosha shootings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called what was happening in Wisconsin ‘painful and really discouraging’. He acknowledged that the militia group page and event should have been removed sooner, but he also went on to essentially blame contract employees for somehow missing on this one. The militia group’s event had been reported by users as harmful close to 500 times, but no action was taken.
Now, the headlines — especially in conservative, Trump-supporting media — all say some version of the same thing: Lawless cities, riots, and chaos are what happens when the Democrats and liberals are in charge. At last week’s Republican National Convention, ‘law and order’ was the running theme from a party keen to keep the focus away from its incompetence during the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be the narrative from the Trump campaign, and one can be sure that they will never once mention or try to grasp the reasons for the protests they so despise.
One can also be sure that the tactics Right-wing groups have used in Wisconsin and Oregon will be repeated elsewhere, and they will put lives at risk.
Facebook is not the only gatekeeper here — not by a long shot — but the platform has never been so important to society.
The platform is massive, global, and remains something crucial for millions of businesses — large and small — around the world. What’s more, I truly believe Facebook is generally a good thing. We hold the generally good things in our lives — including the US itself — to higher standards. The toxicity shines so brightly because it should — it should be in the headlines, it should be talked about. These are crucial matters that get to the heart of our society. However, most Facebook users just post banal things, follow things they’re interested in, and chat with people, and that’s about it.
The question is whether the platform will actually start paying a price for its repeated misses on issues of hate, racism, misinformation, election tampering, and more. The PR will continue, calls to break up the company are getting louder, some advertisers are boycotting, and I know a lot of people in my orbit simply refuse to use the platform or use it very sparingly.
I use Facebook and, on the whole, it makes my life better, and I see so many positive things there. That said, the company is doing a terrible job at the things we are pointing out and it’s high time to hire real, full-time editors and moderators. Thousands of out-of-work journalists in these roles would make a real difference.
In other news, Facebook’s stock price is up roughly 50 percent over the last six months.
Sree Sreenivasan is Marshall Loeb Visiting Professor of Digital Innovation at Stony Brook Journalism School in New York, and cofounder of Digimentors, a social, digital and virtual events consultancy. Twitter: @sree. Views are personal.
(Lookout for Sree Sreenivasan’s take on the upcoming US presidential elections every fortnight.)