Much of the focus on Facebook this past week has been on its core business model, its raison d’etre— invading the privacy of its users, to sell their information to whomever will pay the fee, including information about beliefs, preferences, and likely political attitudes (that is, the users’ psychological make-up):
Most people have heard of demographics – the term used by advertisers to slice up a market by age, gender, ethnicity and other variables to help them understand customers. In contrast, psychographics measure people’s personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles. They help advertisers understand the way you act and who you are.
Historically, psychographic data were much harder to collect and act onthan demographics. Today, Facebook is the world’s largest treasure trove of this data. Every day billions of people give the company huge amounts of information about their lives and dreams.
This isn’t a problem when the data are used ethically – like when a company shows you an ad for a pair of sunglasses you recently searched for.
However, it matters a lot when the data are used maliciously – segmenting society into disconnected echo chambers, and custom-crafting misleading messages to manipulate individuals’ opinions and actions.
That’s exactly what Facebook allowed to happen.
[Of course, Facebook is by no means alone in monetizing peoples’ thoughts and habits.]
But Facebook is not merely undermining our constitutional democracy by aiding and abetting the elaborate efforts of a hostile foreign power to subvert our elections, and install its preferred candidate.
Like other major social media companies, Facebook is corrosive to our civil society, and its egalitarian aspirations, by serving as the information platform, recruiting tool and communication vehicle for white supremacists, as Tess Owens of Vice News explains:
Two Facebook pages associated with white nationalist Richard Spencer have been kicked off the platform.
The outspoken white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right” and runs the National Policy Institute, had been operating in the open on Facebook. The National Policy Institute, which advocates for a white “ethnostate,” had a page with 4,000 followers. Spencer’s online magazine “Altright.com” also had a Facebook page with more than 10,000 followers.
Both were removed Friday after an inquiry from VICE News about those pages and those of several other prominent hate groups…
… a quick search on Facebook turned up scores of pages linked to groups classified as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. These included Spencer’s pages, The Nationalist Initiative, a newly formed spin-off group from the recently-collapsed Traditionalist Workers Party, which along with Spencer, was a major presence in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August.
In the third installment of my series of diaries about white privilege, white entitlement and white supremacy, White privilege and white entitlement give rise to white supremacy: hate speech is never harmless. (Sept 26, 2017), I highlighted the direct and destructive effects of hate speech itself, and the utterly predictable consequences of permitting hate speech to be espoused unchecked, out of misguided free speech absolutism:
Those that insist on an absolute ‘all speech must be allowed’ standard, and claiming the First Amendment requires this, rely on an unsupported assumption: the absence of substantial harm caused by the simple act of utterance of hate speech. This assumption is false.
The assumption that to allow hate speech to be expressed is, by itself, harmless, if not ‘beneficial to the marketplace of ideas’, and similarly, the naive belief that ‘the best ideas will win out’, only have merit in the abstract, and come from a place of privilege.
No reasonable reading of American or world history bears these assumptions out.
Hate speech is always harmful, as Prof. Frederick Schauer explicates in his article The Sociology of the Hate Speech Debate, published in the Villanova Law Review:
I do not believe that we protect speech because it is harmless,or even because its harms, individually or in the aggregate, are smaller than the harms caused by non-speech conduct.23 Rather,existing free speech principles are based on protecting speech despite the harm it may cause. My aim here is not to explain why this is so. Rather, it is merely to point out that insofar as widely believed free speech rationales (whether sound or not) do in fact focus on harmlessness (and note here the frequency with which the harmlessness claim is cloaked in "speech is the symptom and not the cause" language), then those who rely on such rationales are open to the claim that because this speech is harmful then it may be regulated consistent with an existing understanding of the First Amendment.Thus, when those who are injured by hate speech call attention to that injury, and challenge those who deny the injury (usually by using the term "offense," the word most commonly employed by those who want to trivialize what someone else claims is a harm),2 4 the step from the injury to regulation is one that paradoxically has been created by much of the free speech culture itself… (pg. 805)
The process of normalization of bigotry, for example, allows it to flourish, thus leading to more hate speech that is not recognized as such, and to overtly violent and destructive acts. Each time hate speech is promoted, it both a) injures people, and b) contributes to the culture in which bigotry is reified as the norm:
Even the broadest of the proposed hate speech regulations,however, is spectacularly under inclusive of the range of speech produced harms...
Only those that live in a world of privilege and security have the luxury of claiming ‘all speech must be permitted, in all circumstances’, because they are not on the receiving end of the brutality of bigoted culture, and the speech that perpetuates it…
To disregard the severity of the variety of harms caused by hate speech is to minimize the suffering of those injured— itself an expression of the inherent bigotry of the society, in which the suffering of those subjected to the effects of bigotry is of no importance, or is claimed not to exist as real suffering, or real harm, at all, because it is only their perception. (This is a familiar dodge on the part of white supremacists, misogynists, religious bigots and homophobes: their hate speech has been ‘misperceived’ by its intended victims).
Profs. Katherine Gelber and Luke McNamara, writing in the journal Social Identities, dismantle the fiction that there harms of hate speech are inconsequential, or non-existent:
Evidencing the harms of hate speech
In assessing the harms of hate speech, there are two distinctions in the literature we will disaggregate for the purposes of our argument. The first is a distinction between two types of harm, and the second is between two types of hate speech events. Both are addressed in our study. The literature distinguishes between constitutive and consequential harms (Maitra &McGowan, 2012b, p. 6); namely, between harms that are occasioned in the saying of a hate speech act, and harms that occur as a result of it. The former includes the work of Langton, who has argued that ‘speech can subordinate in virtue of unfairly ranking women as inferior’,and Hornsby and McGowan who have separately shown how hate speech can silence its targets(cited in Maitra & McGowan, 2012b, pp. 7-8). Matsuda has written persuasively of individual harms including psychological distress and risk of destruction to one’s self-esteem, and social harms such as restrictions on freedom of movement and association (1993). This is consistent with findings from psychology that individuals subjected to non-physical discrimination suffer harms to their physical and mental health (Meyer, 2003; Vijleveld et. Al., 2012; Anderson,2013; Paradies et. Al., 2013; Gee, 2002; Harris et. Al., 2006; Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, 2012). Indirect effects include harms to dignity, ‘disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard’ (Williams, 1991, p. 73), and the maintenance of power imbalances within social hierarchies of race (Allbrook, 2001; Bloch & Dreher, 2009; Dunn &Nelson, 2011). (pg. 2, emphasis added)
While hate speech is directly harmful in and of itself, it is also an inherent, necessary factor in the propagation of racist violence, providing the motives, and facilitating the means (from the Vice article):
Facebook has been accused of tolerating hate speech and even being used as a tool of genocide in countries like Myanmar, where ultra-nationalists relied on the platform to incite violence against Rohingya. When questioned about this by Congress, Zuckerberg committed to hiring more human moderators to monitor the service in non-English speaking countries.
Other pages connected to white supremacists continue to exist, such as AntiComm, a group that provided security to Spencer when he spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville last October. In November, an investigationby ProPublica revealed how members of AntiComm had been sharing bomb-making instruction manuals on an encrypted server called Discord.
Other Facebook groups and pages have names like “Christianity is white, Goy” (posting anti-semitic memes and Hitler quotes), “White European Bloodlines,” and “Hitler Youth.”
The hate speech found on Facebook and other social media is not merely ‘another political view’, it functions as an integral element in organized, purposeful, racist violence. this is not about the marketplace of ideas; Facebook and social media generally, is the preferred mechanism of white supremacist groups to conspire in the preparation to commit criminal acts.
As I have outlined in the first diary in this series, the most pernicious aspect of the tolerance of white supremacist hate speech on social media (whether barely camouflaged or nakedly explicit), is its normalization:
White privilege and white entitlement lead to white supremacy, whether we recognize it or not. (Aug. 20, 2017)
White privilege and white entitlement, unacknowledged but pervasive, are the nutrient agar from which white supremacy propagates…
White supremacy cannot exist apart from, or outside the framework of, white privilege and white entitlement, as Betsy Lucal notes:
Part of the privilege of whiteness, then,is the ability to choose to be oblivious to the effects of race (Helms 1990; hooks 1994).Racial privilege also structures the way whites deal with people of color. Frye(1983:111) believes that racial privilege gives white people a choice between "hearing and not hearing" the voices of nonwhites.The normative cultural practices that constitute "whiteness" are most visible to those excluded and oppressed by them(Feagin and Vera 1995; Frankenberg 1993).Whites can believe themselves to be invisible to blacks, whereas "[a]ll black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness"(hooks 1992:175)
Whiteness has its privileges.
Among them is the luxury of ignoring its pervasive, systematic and consistently detrimental effects on every person who is not granted the entitlement to the claim of whiteness. For those self-described progressives who contend that a focus on ‘identity politics’ is a divisive distractions (surely this would lose us the all-important, just about to turn progressive WWC swing voters), social injustice is not the most pressing political concern. To hold such a view requires what amounts to self-imposed cultural seclusion.
Nowhere is this more evident than on social media:
Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white.* White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).
For me, a white man, hearing accounts of how black parents teach their sons to deal with police is difficult to grasp as reality...
…these are not stories most whites are socially positioned to hear. Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.
If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.
The ability to remain culturally secluded in this way, to reside in a snowglobe of saturated, homogenized whiteness, is something a white person owns, and is granted from birth:
White privilege and white entitlement give rise to white supremacy— Whiteness as Property. (Sept. 6, 2017)
The various normative expressions of racism— white privilege, white entitlement and white supremacy— must be viewed as both preconditions and products of the political and economic institutions of a nation that was literally founded on purely racist principles.
Prof. Cheryl Harris, writing in the Harvard Law Review, provides a comprehensive and horrifying history of the legal definition of whiteness, and how that definition served as the basis for reifying the racial political and economic hierarchy from earliest days of the US:
Because the "presumption of freedom [arose] from color [white]"and the "black color of the race [raised] the presumption of slavery," whiteness became a shield from slavery, a highly volatile and unstable form of property. In the form adopted in the United States, slavery made human beings market-alienable and in so doing, subjected human life and personhood - that which is most valuable - to the ultimate devaluation. Because whites could not be enslaved or held as slaves, the racial line between white and Black was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property. White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being the object of property… (pp. 1720-21)...
If Mark Zuckerberg sees no particular harm in allowing white supremacists to ply their wares on his dime, it is not only because he sees them as simply another revenue stream (although that is certainly the case), it’s because he is immune to the damage they do.
He holds the most most valuable property in America.
It’s not Facebook, it’s being White.