As we approach one of the most critical elections in our nation's history, the role that Big Tech played in the 2016 election has come under intense scrutiny. And there's a very real possibility that the same companies that fell down on the job the last time around will once again be a force for evil in 2020.
Much attention has been paid to foreign interference and the spread of disinformation on social media. Just as dangerous, however, is how politicians and white supremacists spread hate and other forms of bigotry against historically oppressed groups.
In 2018, my organization, Free Press, co-founded the Change the Terms coalition to push tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to adopt policies we developed to curb the spread of online hate. The threats, defamation and other forms of harassment that target people of color, women, religious minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community can and do have dangerous real-life consequences. Look no further than the string of mass shootings that happened within a week of each other last summer in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.
In 2019, Change the Terms met with the world's most powerful tech companies. We called on them to update their terms of service to ban hateful activities and to balance that ban with due process, rights of appeal, transparency, proper enforcement, and accountability at the C-Suite and board levels. We asked them to ban bot and troll campaigns that trade in racism and other forms of hate.
We saw some real progress—and a stunning degree of apathy:
YouTube tightened its hate-speech policies; PayPal began regularly deplatforming identified white- supremacist accounts; and web-hosting service Cloudflare dropped 8-chan, the horrific online haven for white supremacists.
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Facebook removed a significant number of prominent white supremacists and published a report on content removal. Its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, also spent a day listening to Change the Terms representatives at an Atlanta town hall organized by Color Of Change.
Both Facebook and YouTube adopted policies banning white supremacists, including YouTube's revision earlier this month of its harassment policy to ban videos that "maliciously insult" or target people based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. But their enforcement of these policies is lackluster at best, and many hate groups continue to use both platforms to organize hate campaigns.
In October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg displayed a shameful lack of knowledge about the history of civil rights in the United States. In a speech at Georgetown University, he defended a new company policy that allows politicians to lie, inflame hate and bigotry, and spread disinformation in Facebook ads, all while invoking the civil rights and racial justice legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two years after Charlottesville's deadly Unite the Right rally—which was organized on Twitter—the platform remains flush with white supremacists, giving them nearly free rein on the site. In fact, Twitter has shown a profound indifference to people who exploit the platform to indoctrinate and organize hateful activities that threaten the most vulnerable users. And while Twitter agreed to ban harassment based on one's religion, it refused to extend this protection to other demographic groups.
This fall, Free Press released two reports about the state of content moderation in Big Tech: one about Facebook, the other on Twitter. The reports reveal just how much work both companies have to do.
As the 2020 election ramps up, everyone needs to call on Big Tech to do more to disrupt online hate. The stakes couldn't be higher: If these companies continue to maximize clicks and profits over the well-being of their users, white supremacists and their political allies will continue to subject people of color and other marginalized groups to an unrelenting onslaught of hate. As we've seen on too many occasions, the consequences are tragic.