Imagine a Facebook where the major decision-makers, policy advisers, and public relations folks weren’t one hundred percent wealthy white people. Imagine a Facebook where half of these folks were black, Latinx, Muslim, and immigrants. Imagine that when racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim propaganda began to appear on Facebook back in 2010, 2013, or 2015, that when CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg asked what Facebook should do about it, the team he asked wasn’t the all-white team he asked, but a team that has experience with racism, discrimination, hate crimes, political assassination, and genocide. But as we know, that’s not what happened. A new article in the New York Times shows us all of the bad decision-making that led to the consequences we all live with today.
Above, you see the pictures of all of the major decision-makers named in the New York Times article. From top left: CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, Vice President Sheryl Sandberg, Security Chief Alex Stamos, VP of Global Communications and Public Policy Elliot Schrage, VP of Global Public Policy 2010-2014 Marne Levine, President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, Head of Global Product Policy and Counterterrorism Monika Bickert, General Counsel Colin Stretch, Audit Committee Chair of the Board of Directors Erskine Bowles, Lobbyist Luke Albee, PR Consultant Tim Miller, and Lobbyist Kevin Martin. Every single person named in the article is white. It’s easy to imagine how different things could have been if that weren’t the case.
The Times describes a scene in August of 2017, in which Sandberg lost it over Stamos admitting that Russia had infiltrated the platform and probably swayed the 2016 election that way. But it really didn’t have to be a mess like this all the way in 2017. Facebook had notice of a problem way before then, but it chose to ignore the problem. Facebook, like every other major social media platform, is ultimately a white supremacist organization, in that anyone with any decision-making power, according to the Times article, was white. That white supremacy served as a Trojan horse, the vehicle under which Russian hackers and propagandists snuck in and infiltrated our social media information highway. If Facebook wasn’t a white supremacist organization, the Russians would not have been successful at their pro-Trump propaganda campaign on the platform in 2016. It never would have gotten to this point.
To be clear, the white supremacy I am describing is not about how any of these decision-makers at Facebook personally feel about people of color. I’m sure many, if not most, of them feel aligned with people of color in many ways. The critique is about the structure of power within the company. It’s one thing to display a sort of branded corporate support for marginalized groups. It’s another to put your money where your mouth is and hire marginalized people and hand them the reigns of power. Not a single person with power here was a person of color.
It’s not that Facebook didn’t know how their platform could be abused:
“When researchers and activists in Myanmar, India, Germany and elsewhere warned that Facebook had become an instrument of government propaganda and ethnic cleansing, the company largely ignored them. Facebook had positioned itself as a platform, not a publisher. Taking responsibility for what users posted, or acting to censor it, was expensive and complicated. Many Facebook executives worried that any such efforts would backfire.”
Facebook had real examples of how its platform could be abused. It was warned by people of color in other countries who had suffered horrifically because of its policies, but it made the decision that preventing propaganda that could be deadly to people of color was bad for business.
When Donald Trump campaigned using racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric, Zuckerberg and Sandberg barely paid attention to it and delegated the decision-making to others, who decided that as an important public figure, the company shouldn’t censor him. The biggest threat, as far as these white decision-makers were concerned, was angering conservatives.
After the election, when information surfaced about how Facebook’s platform was used to spread propaganda, Facebook deployed a slew of strategies that included everything except for being honest and accountable. It downplayed Russian activity, it hired lobbyists to sway lawmakers, it pushed negative stories about its competitors like Google, it unleashed a dual PR campaign of both accusing critics of anti-Semitism and accusing critics of the anti-Semitic trope of being paid by George Soros.
[One notable technique that Facebook used was to take a position in favor of SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, not because it had any stake in the bill, but simply to oppose Google and position itself as the company that cared about trafficking victims. This was another failure of Facebook. It failed to listen to the people who would be affected by this bill: sex workers who depended on these platforms to earn money to feed their families, and trafficking investigators who would be out of a tool to use to locate victims. All for a PR move, Facebook adopted a policy that ultimately harms women and. children.]
But what if, back in 2010 through 2015, Facebook’s decision-making team had been comprised of people who had experience with racism and bigotry, and who had the wisdom to foresee that ignoring racism and bigotry and the spread of it on the platform could lead to a white supremacist takeover of our government, an uptick in racist violence, and ultimately, opening the floodgates for our enemies to be able to stoke divisions and destabilize our country? I’m not talking about a token hire or two, faces of color to absolve the company of accusations of white supremacy. I’m talking about people of color and other marginalized folks with real power at the decision-making table. We wouldn’t be where we are today if that had been the scenario.
Marginalized people with decision-making power would not have centered the feelings of white conservatives—they would have centered the safety and participation of all people. Facebook is a business and it has no duty to allow hate speech to flourish on its platform. But with a team of all white people leading the way, it chose to side with a principle of free speech that only serves to protect oppressors. Facebook had the opportunity to define new principles of free speech for the company that were rooted in equity and inclusion and safety. It had the power to help shape how a new generation looks at free speech, how it examines old principles and who they serve.
Going forward, Facebook and other social media platforms need to seriously reassess who has a voice in policy at the companies. They need to get serious about recruiting people of color and other marginalized folks to serve in positions of power. Token hires will not be enough to overcome the deep problems that Facebook and other social media platforms face.
Maybe Facebook can get it right in time for 2020.