A growing list of advertisers has joined a temporary boycott of Facebook, pressuring the company to do more to curtail hate speech and misinformation on the world’s most powerful social media platform.
The campaign has coalesced around the hashtags #StopHateForProfit and #DetoxFacebook, and while so far only 800 or so of Facebook’s 8 million advertisers have pulled ads, it has put Facebook policies into sharp relief. Concern over Facebook’s impact on democratic institutions and the electoral process predates the current campaign—in fact, filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim spent five years examining those issues for their documentary The Great Hack.
The documentary, which premiered on Netflix last July, unpacks how British data mining firm Cambridge Analytica leveraged Facebook user data to help Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. The firm has since gone out of business, mired in scandal, but as the 2020 presidential election nears, Facebook itself remains perhaps the decisive player, in the presidential race and in an array of social and political debates from the COVID-19 pandemic to Black Lives Matter.
“The divisiveness that’s built into Facebook and weaponized by Russia and other forces, it’s right back front and center. And it’s happening in an even more exaggerated way than what we even imagined,” Amer tells Deadline. “Unfortunately, we still haven’t gotten the laws passed in this country to actually have a fair and safe election, where our information-scape is not completely polluted and weaponized.”
As The Great Hack contends for Emmy nominations—voting continues through July 13—Deadline spoke with Amer about Facebook and more.
DEADLINE: Do you think this Facebook ad boycott will ultimately have much impact?
KARIM AMER: I believe we’re in a moment similar to what it was like when me and Jehane were living in Egypt making a film called The Square, about the revolution in Egypt. At that time, when things exploded, we felt like there was a contagious energy because the ceiling of possibility had been removed, so to speak, and anything was possible. I really believe that we’re in a similar change moment, and we need to demand that future now. We can’t wait for the future we want. The future is here. And whether it’s about race, racial equality, whether it’s about minority rights, whether it’s about immigration, whether it’s about the environmental apocalypse that we’re at the cusp of, or whether it’s about valuing science and believing that things like vaccines and that science is relevant for society, all these—no matter what your issue is that you care about most—none of these things can be attained as long as we have Facebook…polluting our information highway and stifling democratic civil discourse.
DEADLINE: CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended Facebook by saying the platform is all about free expression.
AMER: As someone who came from Egypt, a country where free speech is not understood as it is in the United States, I value the First Amendment immensely…The First Amendment is the reason why I was able to make these films. I have the protection of the First Amendment. And I would do anything to protect that First Amendment. However, bastardizing that amendment, under the auspices of your business model, is bulls**t. His position is bulls**t. Because we don’t allow people to go into a movie theater and yell “Fire!” do we? So we have put restrictions on free speech, and what he is condoning is hate speech.
Other technology platforms, including Twitter, have taken a different position, as well as YouTube, Reddit, and Twitch, and they’ve cracked down on Trump and hate speech. Yet Facebook remains unwilling to do so.
We’re seeing this battle for the soul of the world. And social media, which was supposed to be technology that was going to bring us together, as David Carroll said in the movie, has kind of been weaponized and [is] ripping us apart.
What upsets me is that there would be no Silicon Valley if there was no open society. Silicon Valley is standing on the shoulders of the ideals of the open society. It’s what allowed it to become this refuge, where people from all over the world come and become the engineers of the future. But yet, while people are allowed to make billions of dollars off of these ideals and off of this society, there’s no responsibility to protect those same ideals that enabled all this to happen.
DEADLINE: In some respects Facebook is almost a stateless actor.
AMER: Yes, but it’s got 2 billion citizens. And it’s got all its citizens to agree to a contract and not fully understand their rights. And it’s constantly collecting more and more information on all of its citizens, and has no transparency as to what its users can or can’t do. That’s why we say this, that if the user agreement is the new social contract, we need a new agreement…We need a new social contract. Or the social contract today is no longer between the people and the government, it’s between the people, and the government, and Silicon Valley. That’s the new trifecta of power. Who has more power right now, Mark Zuckerberg or Donald Trump, in terms of what happens in the world? I think they go toe to toe. I don’t know who’s more powerful, who influences the other.
DEADLINE: We’re only a few months away from the presidential election. There’s no longer a Cambridge Analytica, it went bankrupt. So no problem, right? We’re good?
AMER: I wish. The film [originally] really focused on Cambridge Analytica, and we were really honing in on that—the film we took to Sundance was actually much more focused on that. And as we started to really dig into it, and started to see the events that happened beyond that, we realized that Cambridge Analytica is the story in terms of it’s the way we can get into the space, but what it allows us to realize is that Facebook is the real crime scene. Cambridge Analytica is just a vehicle. It’s one of the bullets that was fired. But the gun is Facebook.
DEADLINE: In terms of the influence of Facebook, you’re concerned about much more than just the presidential election.
AMER: My prediction is that COVID’s going to continue to be a weaponized, politicized space. And Facebook, if they’re complicit in that, then not only do they have the breaking of democracy on their hands, but I think they have blood on their hands. And then they really have to start asking themselves, are they okay with that? Unfortunately, Facebook’s record shows that they’re kind of okay with it. If you see what happened with the Rohingya [genocide in Myanmar], Facebook didn’t really respond to that one. So I think this has become a new form of exploitation, where we can mine people’s data, take it where we want, and oh, yeah, there’s going to be some bad actors who do bad things with that same technology that we built, and it’s not really our fault. What are we going to do about it? It’s the First Amendment. Let’s hide behind that. Yeah, that’s a good one. That’s what I’m seeing, and I think it’s terrifying.
That’s what I mean by this incentivizing of divisiveness, that the actual business model is predicated on that in many ways, pushing people—whether it’s a YouTube algorithm radicalizing people further, or Facebook encouraging people to go this way or that way. What happened as a result is that it’s very hard to have a common ground, because when what you see in your feed, only you see, and what I see is only what I see, then we have no grasp of a common reality. And when that becomes increasingly the norm for the bulk of America, how can we ever find a common ground?