Anti-trust nerds, consumer advocates and open internet campaigners and have been fighting to break up Facebook for years. But in their crusade against the social network’s online monopoly, the usual suspects have enlisted a growing coalition of allies: artists and progressive Muslim and Jewish activists.
Last week, the Muslim civil rights group MPower Change, the pro-Palestinian nonprofit Jewish Voice for Peace and the artists’ advocacy group Content Creators Coalition joined groups like Open Markets Institute, Demand Progress, Public Citizen and Citizens Against Monopoly in the Freedom from Facebook campaign, which calls for the Federal Trade Commission to break up the social media conglomerate.
Their decision highlights just how much trouble Facebook can cause for activists ― and the breadth of the coalition against it.
Remember, Facebook is not just the website where you wish happy birthday to people you were friends with ten years ago. It’s actually a massive platform conglomerate made up of a multitude of constituent parts. It’s Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Messenger Kids. It’s the Facebook advertising network. It’s the virtual reality platform Oculus and the digital metrics platform CrowdTangle.
When people talk about breaking up Facebook what they mean is dismantling these parts into independent competitors and companies. The Freedom from Facebook campaign argues that Facebook has a monopoly on social media that poses a threat to both competition and online activism. The campaign asks the Federal Trade Commission to spin off Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger into separate companies to compete with the main Facebook site, require social media sites to be interoperable with each other and impose stronger privacy rules to protect consumers.
“Facebook has allowed hate speech and fake news to fester, censored activists at the behest of certain governments, facilitated law enforcement surveillance, and even actively aided in the distribution of anti-Muslim propaganda,” said Mohammad Khan, the campaign director at MPower Change.
Members of MPower Change regularly face harassment on Facebook and so far the company has done little to prevent it, Khan said. And the organization is worried that its members’ privacy and data are particularly at risk since MPower Change activists rely on the whole suite of Facebook properties ― Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.
“The recent news around Cambridge Analytica highlighted broader issues with Facebook’s inability to protect our data and actively allow for anti-Muslim propaganda to expand on its platform,” Khan added. “With its monopoly power, Facebook is effectively immune to efforts to address these practices.”
Facebook’s immense power as a platform to censor and control political debates is what motivated Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish organization that seeks to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to join the campaign.
“[Facebook is] an important communication tool for our Palestinian allies in the region, and for Israeli Jews who work for human rights. It’s an important way to organize and amplify what’s happening on the ground,” explained Granate Kim, a spokeswoman for Jewish Voice for Peace. But the organization is concerned that Facebook is already censoring Palestinian pages and users that the Israeli government disapproves of. In 2016, Facebook representatives met with Israeli government officials including the far-right justice minister Ayelet Shaked to discuss which Palestinian pages should be shut down due to “incitement.” Since then, Facebook has proceeded to approve 95 percent of Israel’s shutdown requests. These have included news sites and individual user pages.
This is particularly consequential as Facebook is so ubiquitous in the Palestinian territories ― 96 percent of Palestinians use Facebook as their primary news source. Shutting down news pages on the platform can equate to near total viewpoint censorship on the platform.
Jewish Voice for Peace worries that Facebook may consider labeling calls for targeted boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israeli companies as anti-Semitic hate speech. Jewish Voice for Peace supports the BDS movement, which favors non-violent economic protest to end the occupation of Palestinian land. But Israel considers the movement anti-Semitic violence and has enacted laws to allow lawsuits to be filed against publishers of BDS messages and banned entry to the country of pro-BDS activists. “We would lose a valuable way to talk about BDS as a nonviolent tool for the movement for Palestinian freedom,” Kim said.
Like MPower Change, Jewish Voice for Peace activists routinely face anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian harassment on Facebook that the company rarely counts as violations of its terms of service, Kim said.
Artists, too, are getting a raw deal from Facebook, argued Maggie Vail, an executive board member of the Content Creators Coalition, which advocates on behalf of musicians and artists.
Artists have limited options to reach their audience online, Vail, who is a bass player, DJ, independent record label executive and head of a nonprofit that produces open source tools for musicians, explained. And since Facebook bought up Instagram, Facebook’s products are pretty much the only game in town for artists to reach their fans. By using Facebook to reach their fans, artists are increasing traffic to the platform and help keep user attention on the site, but they aren’t getting anything in return, Vail argued. “We push people to these outlets, and we can’t access our fans,” she said.
Facebook takes advantage of its position as the middleman, she noted, and refuses to provide data on fans to the artists, while using that data for itself to target ads on the site. Additionally, in a system she likened to “pay to play,” artists need to spend money on advertising to promote their posts so that their fans will actually see their content in their personal feeds.
“It used to be easier to find your fans,” Vail concluded. “Since they realized they had to monetize and advertise it’s basically just this game well give us money and then you can access your people.”
The Freedom from Facebook campaign is pushing supporters to petition the FTC to break up the company at the same time the commission is investigating whether Facebook violated its 2011 consent decree to protect user privacy after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. One new commissioner, Rohit Chopra, sent a staff memo stating that companies in violation of consent orders “must face severe consequences.” The activist groups aim to put a face on the harms of monopoly as the investigation moves forward.