A New York Times investigation has revealed that Facebook fought critics and a growing number of scandals following the 2016 election by launching a PR offensive backed by a dubious Republican opposition-research firm: Definers Public Affairs. We speak with Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, one of the organizations targeted by Definers Public Affairs. We also speak with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.” He is a professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. Vaidhyanathan’s new article for Slate is titled “Facebook Is a Normal Sleazy Company Now.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rashad Robinson, you’re president of Color of Change. Talk about how your group fits into this picture. Your response to the news that Facebook hired a PR firm trying to discredit its critics, a part of a group you were part of?
RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, you know, The New York Times story does have some inaccuracies. It links us to this group Freedom from Facebook, which Color of Change isn’t and has never been a member of, although, you know, we do know some of the work that they’re doing.
For the last several years, Color of Change, as an independent black political, civil rights organization, has pushed Facebook around a wide range of civil rights practices, around a wide range of violations, everything from the way that race was weaponized on their platform during the 2016 election—Facebook pages and groups were created to drum up hate—to the ways in which certain practices on their platform circumvent civil rights law. You can use algorithms to market housing to certain communities and cut certain communities out of it, sort of avoiding public accommodation laws. There’s ways in which some of the issues around safety, and attacks and hate language targeted at black activists, has not been dealt with.
We called for and led a campaign to demand Facebook implement a civil rights audit of all of their policies and practices. And we actually won that campaign. Facebook agreed. And over the last several months, we’ve been in deep conversation, back and forth, as they’ve pursued this civil rights audit. And to like be sitting across the table with Facebook, be pushing them around, everything from sort of how they think about the election and voting rights and how voter suppression could be drummed up on their platform to racial justice issues on their platform and hate speech—to have all of that sort of happen, while at the same time they hired a firm that really sort of put out this anti-Semitic and anti-black narrative, the anti-Semitic sort of narrative that this Jewish billionaire controls the world, that Jews control the world, is deeply troublesome. It has deep historical challenges.
But it also seeks to undermine social movements. The idea that as a black civil rights organization founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when black people were literally on their roofs demanding the government do something, and two black leaders came together to build Color of Change, a force to channel the presence that black people have in the world into the power to make real change, that our victories, our strategies, our vision for how we fight for liberation for black people is somehow controlled by some white liberal billionaire who decides to give us some money and that we don’t have our own ideas, is deeply troubling and deeply anti-black.
The fact of the matter is, is George Soros is not our biggest donor. He’s not even one of our top five biggest donors. And if George Soros wanted to be our biggest donor and give us a lot more money to fight the causes that we fight every day, we would take that money. We don’t, as an organization, racially profile or profile by religion our donors. We do not accept money from corporations. We do not accept money from government. And what we do every single day is try to work to build power and change the rules that hold black people back.
And so, to be in this conversation right now is deeply troubling, to have Facebook deploy these tactics, which are being deployed around the world, especially in this moment where we’ve seen such an uptick in anti-Semitic hate, an uptick in anti-black hate, seeing the consequences of that, in really stark ways, with deep violence happening to communities, that Facebook would do that, and has yet to apologize for the hiring of this firm, for these tactics it deploys.
At the end of the day, though, Facebook is an incredibly powerful platform, the most powerful communication platform in the world. And we recognize, as a civil rights organization that sits across the table from Facebook and refuses to take money from them—we recognize that we have to do the work to hold them accountable. That’s part of what we have to do to move independents. And it’s just going to be harder over these next couple of months, recognizing that these are some of the tactics that they’re willing to deploy.
The final thing I’ll say about this is, we’ve noticed an uptick over the last several months of people, of journalists asking us if we had money from George Soros, if George Soros had donated to us. We’ve noticed an uptick in attacks on our website, personal threats against me as the leader, where, you know, we’ve had to hire and engage security experts. This has real consequences for the safety, for the well-being, for our ability to express our will for a better future. You may disagree with our tactics, but to attack us and make us unsafe, simply because we are trying to push you on a set of civil rights issues, is shameful. We hope that Facebook addresses this. We’ve put out a set of demands for them. And there’s really work that has to be done now to not just repair the relationship, but to move us forward with the concrete changes that have to be made.
AMY GOODMAN: What do know about Definers Public Affairs, this Republican lobbying firm in Washington?
RASHAD ROBINSON: You know, we don’t know a lot about them. You know, they are a firm that says that they are made up of a whole set of veterans from Republican campaigns. You know, one could imagine the way that we saw certain tactics deployed in this last election—you know, we saw the new minority leader for the House of Representatives, McCarthy, tweet out, shortly before the election, that we can’t have our election bought by George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, you know, mentioning three Jewish donors. He actually pulled that tweet down after the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh was shot up by, you know, the terrorist actions, and pulled that down because it was very clear that that type of narrative about Jewish folks sort of controlling and dictating the terms at which people raise their voices, make their voices heard in our democracy, fight for a better future, is this old trope. And the fact that they would take it down recognizes that they knew they had a problem. But we’ve seen these tactics deployed across the right wing. And to see that an organization that occupies such a mainstream space sort of move to these type of tactics also shows the ways in which this larger—these larger sort of strategies of Donald Trump in this era have become mainstream. What was once on the margins is mainstream.
We, at Color of Change, have had to actually work to force credit card companies to stop processing fees on white nationalist sites, had to go, you know, site by site, looking at sites for folks like Richard Spencer. And you could go on that site, and you could put your credit card number in, or you could put your PayPal number in. And we spent, you know, literally a year going back and forth with these companies. And after Charlottesville, the companies that were once upon a time telling us we had to go talk to the banks, and then the banks telling us we had to go talk to the credit card companies, we actually started to get them to make some headway. And about 40 sites no longer are allowed to process fees—are no longer allowed to get funds from like Visa, Mastercard, American Express. And some of those sites and some of those organizations have claimed they’ve shut their doors as a result of us cutting off their money.
We are very familiar at Color of Change of being sort of in the middle of trying to hold accountable the enablers of white supremacy, the enablers of white nationalism, and preventing mainstream forces from being able to allow these institutions to grow and flourish and raise money. And so, The New York Times story, for us, is really important. And it just speaks to the importance of investigative journalism, the importance of independent journalism, the importance that we have in this country of having a free press that will dig in, and all the ways in which even Facebook creates challenges to our ability to get sort of the information that we need to be good citizens in our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Siva Vaidhyanathan, what do you make of Zuckerberg saying Facebook plans to institute an independent oversight board?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah, I mean, great. Five years too late? I mean, these problems have been building for five years. They’ve known about many of these problems for longer. Social media scholars like myself have been tracking many of these problems since at least 2011. And Facebook has never taken it seriously. We know now, from the Times article, that Facebook has put a tremendous amount of energy into distracting us and confusing us and flooding the media ecosystem with more propaganda to get us all messed up about what’s really happening.
So, yeah, an independent review board, I mean, it will probably be as effective as the independent review board that was supposed to clean up Uber. I mean, look, the fact is, Facebook can’t fix itself. It’s too big: 2.2 billion people post things to it regularly in more than a hundred languages. If you’re going to host 2.2 billion people, a good number of them are going to mean to do harm to other people, right? Because we don’t have that many great people in the world. So, what is Facebook going to do about that? Well, it can’t. It’s too big. It can’t filter. It can’t edit. It just can’t deal. That’s one of the problems.
Then you have its algorithms, which are explicitly designed to amplify things that generate strong emotions—like hate speech, like calls to genocide, like conspiracy theories, right? And if you argue with any of that stuff, if you go on Facebook and you see something like wacky telling you that like vaccinations cause autism or something, and you argue back and you say, “Oh, that’s wrong. It’s going to hurt children that you’re spreading this news. And here are some real scientific sites,” the very act of arguing with crazy stuff on Facebook amplifies it, makes it go farther. You can’t argue with the crazy on Facebook. It is an upside-down world.
So, the scale of it—2.2. billion people in a hundred languages—the algorithm and amplification, and the fact that it has this powerful advertising system, that can target and put messages, all kinds of coercive messages or powerful messages, in front of just the right people, just the susceptible people, whether that is selling shoes, selling tires, selling political candidates or selling bigotry, it is so powerful. And everybody who is launching a nationalist movement, a bigoted movement, a hate movement or an authoritarian movement knows it. You could not invent a better propaganda machine for that process than Facebook itself. There is no way to fix Facebook. There is no way to fix it internally without completely undermining everything that it is, because the problem with Facebook is Facebook.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Siva Vaidhyanathan is author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. To see our more extended discussion with him, you can go to democracynow.org, a professor at the University of Virginia. And Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.
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