How do you convince someone like Mark Zuckerberg that some prices are indeed too high to pay for free speech, when it’s not them who is paying the price?
Last week, hundreds of American and multinational advertisers including Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Levi Strauss, Adidas, Ford, Walgreens, Unilever and Hershey said they would stop advertising on Facebook for a month, unless the social media company did something about the hate speech and misinformation that is endemic on the social media platform, and that has contributed to social discord in Facebook’s home country and elsewhere.
The boycott, which perhaps not coincidentally comes at a time when many advertisers are pulling back on their spend because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus (which, if social media is to be believed, is a hoax anyway), doesn’t look as if it will bring about the change at Facebook that many have spent years hoping for.
Boycotting advertisers are said to have been disappointed by their talks with Facebook executives, and it was reported in the online tech-industry news publication The Information that Mr Zuckerberg told his employees he would not “change our policies or our approach on anything because of a threat to a small per cent of our revenue, or to any per cent of our revenue”.
Any per cent of revenue, by definition, would include 100 per cent of revenue, which means that Mr Zuckerberg is so entrenched in his pro-speech-at-any-cost position that no amount of boycotting would ever make him change his mind.
And why would he?
Even after the boycott took its toll on Facebook’s share price (at one point, the boycott had contributed to a $US56 billion ($80.6 billion) decline in Facebook’s market value, much of which was quickly recovered), Mr Zuckerberg’s own Facebook shares were still worth close to $US80 billion.
The law of diminishing marginal utility, which states that your second dollar is less valuable to you than your first dollar, and your third dollar is less valuable to you than your second dollar etc, means that the boycotts will have little impact on Mr Zuckerberg, personally. There was nothing he could do with the $US7 billion he lost (momentarily, on paper) from the boycott, that he couldn’t still do with the money he already had.
That’s a problem, given that Mr Zuckerberg owns more than half the voting shares in Facebook, and single-handedly controls the company. Other investors might lose their shirts, but no matter what, he will still have more money than he knows how to spend.
But that’s not even the biggest problem facing those who would like to see Facebook, as well as other social media companies, follow social norms such as not profiting from ethnic cleansing, or race- or gender-based slurs.
A bigger problem is that Facebook has, in a new take on that old maxim, privatised the profits of unconstrained free speech, but socialised the cost.
When a white supremacist picked up a semi-automatic weapon and gunned down 51 New Zealanders with the express purpose of making a “real effort” Facebook post, it wasn’t Facebook that paid the cost of its insistence on uncensored posts for everyone. Someone else did.
When Facebook refuses to censor posts that state COVID-19 is a conspiracy, or when it refuses to put limits on what politicians such as Donald Trump can say on its platform because it doesn’t want to be an arbiter of what’s true, it’s not the one picking up the tab. Others are. Facebook merely rakes in the profits that such controversies generate.
No, it’s not Facebook that’s paying the price for Mr Zuckerberg’s fanatical belief in free speech no matter what the cost.
It’s everyone else.