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Why did it take so long for Reddit and Facebook to block racist groups?

  Powerful tech companies have two areas of vulnerability - employees and advertisers. Now both are in open revolt


By Siva Vaidhyanathan
This week, in a matter of just 48 hours, several social media companies made major changes to how their platforms are and can be used. Reddit deleted a group, or “subreddit”, called “The Donald” that was known for encouraging targeted harassment and hate speech. YouTube banned videos from white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer. And Facebook cracked down on a wide swath of dangerous content, including groups devoted to the “boogaloo” movement, which hopes to spark a race war in the United States.
These developments signal a significant shift in how these companies see their role and responsibility in the world. Until extremely recently their leaders repeatedly declared that “free speech” was their primary value, and trumped other values like safety, dignity and democracy.
Now, without declaring they had been wrong all along, these companies seem to have all decided it was time to declare a different way of dealing with dangerous, extremist content – at least on the surface. Why all this action, and why now?
The first half of 2020 was a perfect storm of factors that made many of these companies reconsider how they want to represent themselves to the world and how they want to treat their users. The flood of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic endangered lives. The bold movements for social justice that rose up in the wake of the martyrdom of George Floyd heightened sensitivity and awareness of the dangers of white supremacy in the US like nothing else in recent years. And the re-election effort of Donald Trump has grown increasingly dangerous, with the president and his followers frequently deriding public health efforts and celebrating state and vigilante violence against Black people and their allies.
In this environment, corporate leaders at Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other companies had to take much more seriously the question of how they influence the world. Of course, social media scholars have been calling for this level of attention for almost a decade. Since around 2017, many journalists have, as well. But it took more than scholarship and journalism to make a difference.
Companies as rich, powerful, and ubiquitous as Facebook and Google only have two real soft spots. One is labor. Both Google, which owns YouTube, and Facebook face a constant shortage of highly qualified and experienced workers. Many people who work for these companies have other employment options in ways that most American workers will never enjoy. Technology workers command high salaries and have unusual flexibility in their career plans and life choices. They are also in constant communication with each other, meaning that Silicon Valley workers, when they choose to, have a lot of power in terms of collective message-making. Recent months have seen growing expressions of disgust among workers at major tech companies who are frustrated at their companies’ refusal to respond more assertively to problems with how their platforms are used. The CEOs and COOs of these companies are now, belatedly, realizing they have to take these concerns seriously.
The other soft spot is advertising. Advertisers have even more power than workers. This week several major global advertisers, apparently led by Unilever, announced that they are suspending advertising on Facebook until the company has stronger protocols against the use of its platform for hate speech and disinformation.
Unilever may be one of the few institutions on earth that Facebook needs more than it needs Facebook.
(Contd on page 31)
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