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Advertising Our Ethics – Facebook does the right thing for the wrong reason

There is something about the anonymity – or near anonymity – of the Internet that can bring out the opposite of the best in people. When a bunch of people are gathered together in a digital space where they can say or post anything they want without fear of reprisal, many take this opportunity to reveal dark and hateful sides of themselves. The Internet is filled with dark corners – message boards and the like – where a rancorous community can gather to spit curses into the void, but many parts of the Internet are kept bright with the fluorescence of advertisements and in those spots…the hate can shine.

Thus it was that on Tuesday (May 28) Facebook was forced to publicly apologize for (some of) the hate speech appearing on their site, and acknowledge that Facebook has done a poor job of taking down pages filled with misogynistic hate. As was reported by Tanzina Vega in a New York Times article titled “Facebook Says It Failed to Bar Posts with Hate Speech,” Facebook is pledging to take this matter more seriously.

As should be expected Facebook did not suddenly decide to care about this issue (though individual employees at the company may have cared), rather this was a reaction to a successfully organized campaign against Facebook led by an alliance of women’s groups. What this alliance did was go after the advertisers, as Vega writes in the Times:

“We thought that advertisers would be the most effective way of getting Facebook’s attention,” said Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women, Action and the Media. “We had no idea that it would blow up this big. I think people have been frustrated with this issue for so long and feeling like that [sic] had no way for Facebook to pay attention to them. As consumers we do have a lot of power.”

Facebook was forced to respond as various advertisers began to feel the negative pressure, and thus turned to Facebook to resolve the issue before this matter could further blowback against the advertisers. This story is a perfect example of a company doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and in so doing making quite obvious the real motivations driving any actions by the company.

There is much heinous hate speech on Facebook (and in other corporate places on the Internet), yet it is imperative to keep in mind that Facebook is not now replying to the hate speech out of some moral inclination. Facebook just needs people using the site so that advertisements can be thrown at them, it doesn’t care that much what people are doing on the site. The move by Facebook to take action against pages with titles like “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs” was based on a simple financial decision. The campaign targeting advertisers grew to sufficient size to bother some advertisers who then had to go bother Facebook, and Facebook responded (not to be repetitive) not to a reasonable ethical demand but to a much blunter capitalist demand.

Here the full meaning of Jaclyn Friedman’s above quote can be recognized:

“people have been frustrated with this issue for so long and feeling like that [sic] had no way for Facebook to pay attention to them.”

That quote suggests that attempts were made to get Facebook to act out of an ethical recognition that the company bore responsibility as a forum for hate speech, but what this quote also reveals is that Facebook was unwilling to recognize this as an ethical demand. After all, Facebook (and most companies) do not recognize people as beings to whom an ethical commitment is owed, to Facebook all a user happens to be is a mass of data (more on big data) which can be fed into algorithms allowing for better advertisement targeting. This, alas, is why Facebook only bowed to the force of “as consumers we do have a lot of power.”

It is good that Facebook has been forced to take some form of action (or at least for them to say that they will take some action), but this is not a victory for good ethics, Internet civility, women’s rights, or a blow against misogyny. Rather this is just another victory for capital and a new opportunity for Facebook (and advertisers) to portray themselves as responsive to the demands of their users. The only ethic that Facebook cares about is the ethic of profitability.

True, this might be an example of people – organized as “consumers” – wielding some power, but by reducing ourselves from “people” to whom ethical treatment is owed to “consumers” who just don’t want to be offended, we’ve already lost.

Related Content

A Review of Digital Disconnect (which is about Capitalism and the Internet)

Some Thoughts on Ethics and Smartphones (contains a discussion of the “ethical demand”)


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Advertising Our Ethics – Facebook does the right thing for the wrong reason

  1. oneofthelibrarians
    May 29, 2013

    The flip side of this is that pictures of breast feeding are often taken down by Facebook for being lewd. Which is so icky, since it really says more about the complainers in those instances than anything else — that they can’t view women’s bodies as anything other than sexual (and therefore perverse). Not to mention that in many places (NY included) it is perfectly legal, however unusual in practice, for women to be topless in public. *shakes a fist*

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2013 by in Community, Culture, Economics, Ethics, Society, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , , .

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