Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On Thursday, amidst extraordinary external and internal pressure to hold President Donald Trump accountable for his communications, Facebook took down ads run by the President’s reelection campaign depicting an upside-down triangle — a symbol that, according to the Anti-Defamation League “is practically identical to that used by the Nazi regime to classify political prisoners in concentration camps.”
Facebook said the ads violated its hate policies. (The Trump campaign claimed the image depicted “a symbol widely used by Antifa.”)
It was a step — but only a baby step, and just the beginning of what Facebook must do to confront rhetoric that has become dangerous for both the country and the platform.
After a staff walkout at Facebook early this month over the company’s inaction on a series of controversial posts from Trump, and a very public letter by former employees excoriating its policies, the social media company has been under tremendous pressure to take a stand.
That pressure has been mounting even further as Joe Biden’s presidential campaign works to rally Democrats to sign a petition (disclosure: I did) urging the company not to allow the President and others to post incendiary content.
Facebook should respond by working with other social networks to create a nonpartisan organization to set standards for policing content on all major platforms. If it doesn’t act soon, Facebook could lose many liberal users — a possibility that would be bad for the company, but even worse for the country.
Last week, the Biden campaign launched #MoveFastFixIt — a play on chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s motto to “Move Fast and Break Things” — asking the platform to rapidly remove misinformation that goes viral, make sure all ads spread factual information, especially in the two weeks before the presidential election, and prohibit threats and lies about how to vote.
In recent weeks, Facebook has come under fire for allowing a presidential post condemning mail-in ballots while Twitter marked the same content potentially misleading and for allowing a Trump post threatening to send in the National Guard against Americans protesting police violence — content which was also flagged by Twitter.
But when it comes to Trump’s troubling personal posts, so far, Zuckerberg has stuck to denouncing the President. “We are deeply shaken and disgusted by President Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric at a time when our nation so desperately needs unity,” Zuckerberg said in a statement with his wife, Priscilla Chan. That’s basically the equivalent of using the old Robin Williams line “Stop, or I’ll say stop again.”
With Democrats now turning up the dial on public pressure, he’s clearly going to have to do more. So, what are you going to do, Zuckerberg?
The stakes are even higher than he may realize — for both Facebook and America. Clearly, by allowing the President to use his platform to spread lies and threats, Zuckerberg is aiding Trump’s reelection prospects, even if he claims to merely be promoting free speech. By allowing misleading or false content on the site, Zuckerberg is making it harder for Americans to identify the accurate information they need to make informed choices as voters and citizens. And by permitting violent posts, how can Zuckerberg claim not to be promoting violence? As I’ve warned before, studies show that people who view violence in the media are much more likely to act violently themselves.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another major danger here. If Zuckerberg doesn’t act soon, Americans may permanently splinter onto partisan social networks. As millions of young people have left Facebook over the past few years, the conventional wisdom has been that they were escaping a stodgy platform used by their parents. But now it seems that the exodus may have been sparked by politics; the most shared posts each day on Facebook tend to be conservative, while the top content on Twitter is often liberal.
Now, if Democrats flee Facebook in reaction to Biden’s campaign — in addition to anger at Zuckerberg’s inaction — there is a very real risk that Americans with different political views are going to separate out onto different social networks. This is one of the worst things that could happen to our country. If people with different beliefs don’t engage with one another, there’s very little chance of ever achieving middle ground to solve our problems. And losing followers wouldn’t be very profitable for Facebook as a company, either.
So far, Facebook has responded to Biden by claiming that creating standards is not its job. “Just as they have done with broadcast networks — where the US government prohibits rejecting politicians’ campaign ads — the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them,” the company said in a statement.
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Here’s a better approach. Major social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, should create an independent body — comprised of lawyers, professors and other civic-minded tech experts — to agree on industry standards that they all follow when policing content. Besides helping prevent further political fracturing on social networks, this would be a good move for companies because it would take the pressure off of them individually to figure out the right answers to these tough questions.
Zuckerberg needs to do more now. He can’t afford to lose any more friends.