Aurora Magazine

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Will the Facebook Ad Ban Make a Difference?

Published 17 Jul, 2020 02:54pm
Don’t hold your breath, says Julian Saunders.

The short answer is, I think, not much. The explanation lies in understanding how Facebook’s business model really works. All Mark Zuckerberg ever wanted was huge numbers of people, globally, to use his platform as much as possible so that he could hoover up all their behavioural data and then, package and sell it as advertising. It is a business model that has been dubbed Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

Zuckerberg did not want to be responsible for anything people said on Facebook, adopting a free speech libertarian stance (enshrined in the U.S. constitution) as a moral cloak for an essentially commercial enterprise. As Facebook got huge, it started to reflect our common humanity. There was generosity and friendship as well as viciousness and underhand behaviour.

Then came more outrage, lies, shock, horror, scandal, gossip and prejudice. People can’t resist clicking and sharing this stuff. Thus, people spend more time on the platform and produce more data. Facebook gets richer. It was the Surveillance Capitalism game. Zuckerberg did not plan this, but he could not, initially, control it – and he did profit from it

In the end you are responsible for what people say; especially if it has consequences.

Cracks in Facebook’s libertarian stance appeared after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook had been happily taking ad money from people it did not know (or who used it as a front) but were really bad actors intent on misinformation and disruption. Russia experts and KGB watchers were not surprised. Misinformation has been one of their activities for decades; Facebook was just another opportunity to practice their highly developed craft skills.

Facebook tried to play catch up and invested in AI and a new staff to spot and block the baddies. But it is almost impossible to cut out everything dodgy because a) Facebook produces huge and unprecedented volumes of content, and b) some of it is ambiguous. It becomes especially tricky when one of the chief propagators is (shocking this really) the U.S. President. Failure to call out Trump’s hate speech is the inciting incident for the ban. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” said Trump in response to the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd

Civil rights activists called out the contrast between Facebook and other platforms, like Twitter, which noted the historical resonance of Trump’s statement. He was, in fact, quoting a racist police chief from the 1960s and seemingly, inciting vigilante violence. Zuckerberg may have to deal with more policy decisions like this. Trump will (most likely) make more “appeals to his base” that will be inflected with implicit racism, especially as he gets more desperate to defeat Joe Biden

Advertisers have been waking up slowly, first raising concerns about ‘brand safety’ - the fear that your brand ads would appear alongside some unpleasant content. In retrospect, this seems a rather timid and self-interested response. Now some of the big advertisers have been flushed out by the Stop Hate for Profits campaign which prompted 1000 or so companies to stop using Facebook for advertising - at least for the month of July.

Will this make a difference? Sadly, I think not. Facebook is global, growing and their advertiser base is highly diversified. If this ban makes ads on Facebook cheaper, then that value will most likely be snapped up by others.

Zuckerberg’s real fear is making enemies among powerful politicians which may explain his reluctance to face down Trump.

In the Philippines, President Duarte used Facebook in his election campaign, as did Modi in India. Facebook is flourishing and growing in both countries. But in China, there is no Facebook, just WeChat. The Chinese Communist Party never allowed foreign platforms like Facebook to gain a foothold because it wanted platforms it could control. This is the clue to what keeps Zuckerberg awake at night.

Defence of the free speech of politicians is his way of saying – leave me alone to make money and I will let you say whatever you want to say in order to stay in power.

Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson.