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Are Conspiracy Theories Good For Facebook?

Graeme Jennings
Getty Images

Editor's note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money's newsletter. You can sign up here.

Last week, the titans of tech Zoomed into a congressional hearing for a flogging through their computer screens. Members of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law interrogated the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook over concerns that they're becoming monopolies and abusing their power.

Both Democrats and Republicans directed much of their wrath at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Congressional trustbusters blasted him for buying up Instagram and WhatsApp. Acquiring competitors to neutralize them is a classic move in the monopoly playbook. But the lawmakers' gripes with the company went far beyond typical antitrust concerns.

"Facebook is profiting off and amplifying disinformation that harms others, because it's profitable," said the subcommittee's chairman, David Cicilline (D-R.I.). Cicilline and other lawmakers suggested Facebook is allowing proliferation of conspiracy theories, bogus information and hate because it's the type of content that keeps users engaged. "The more engagement there is, the more money you make on advertising," Cicilline told Zuckerberg.

"I have to disagree with the assertion that you're making that this content is somehow helpful for our business," Zuckerberg responded. "It is not what people want to see." He asserted that Facebook's algorithms amplify what is "meaningful to people" and creates "long-term satisfaction, not what's just gonna get engagement or clicks today."

Bogus information, hate and conspiracy theories have animated American politics forever. In 1964, the historian Richard Hofstadter published an article in Harper's Magazine, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," that dove into the storied history of crankery in U.S. politics. In the early republic, for example, many Americans believed that a secretive Masonic Illuminati aimed to destroy religious institutions and overturn governments around the world. In the 1800s, nativist Americans widely believed in a "Catholic plot against American values." And in the McCarthy era, pundits claimed that even the most patriotic of Americans, like Gens. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, were part of a "Communist conspiracy."

Social media has supercharged the paranoid style. For example, 59 U.S. congressional candidates believe tenets of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims world governments are run by globalist elites who secretly participate in a Satan-worshipping pedophile ring. Bill Gates has been the target of a viral conspiracy theory that says he wants to use a COVID-19 vaccine to implant people with microchips. In April, a New York Times analysisfound misinformation about him and COVID-19 was posted over 16,000 times on Facebook and liked and commented on nearly 900,000 times. Researchers at the University of Oxford recently found that 20% of people in England believe that Jews manufactured COVID-19 to destroy the economy.

"Social media has allowed conspiracy theories to gain a kind of traction that heretofore just simply wasn't possible," says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. He says Facebook, in particular, is allowing an "algorithmic amplification of some of the worst ideas."

Greenblatt worries that these ideas are inspiring violence in the real world. In 2019, his organization tracked more anti-Semitic incidents than at any time in the ADL's 107-year history. These included stabbings and other assaults on Jews around New York and shootings at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the ADL joined with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to boycott Facebook for allowing hate and extremism to flourish on its platform. They're calling it the "Stop Hate for Profit" campaign. They rallied major advertisers to boycott Facebook for the month of July.

"And amazingly, over 1,100 advertisers joined," Greenblatt says. "Some of the most iconic brands in the world have participated." They include Patagonia, Unilever, Ford, Pfizer, Reebok, Levi's, Honda, White Castle and Harley-Davidson. It's true that companies are already cutting back on ad sales during the pandemic recession, so this might be a convenient time for a boycott. But Greenblatt says that brands dislike having their ads associated with toxic messages and that they're serious about getting Facebook to change its ways. He says that in comparison, other major social media platforms such as Twitter — which just before we spoke had banned white supremacists David Duke, Richard Spencer and Stefan Molyneux — are making "tremendous strides."

The Stop Hate for Profit campaign has a list of 10 demands for Facebook, which include taking down all Facebook groups dedicated to white supremacy, dangerous conspiracy theories and racism and bigotry in all forms; creating "a civil rights infrastructure" to regulate content; submitting to independent audits; and reforming algorithms so they don't amplify hate-filled or blatantly false content. Last week, the Stop Hate for Profit campaigners were joined by another campaignled by Holocaust survivors, #NoDenyingIt, that takes aim at Facebook's resistance to taking down Holocaust denial-related content.

When asked about the Stop Hate for Profit campaign in last week's congressional hearing, Zuckerberg contended that Facebook "is very focused on fighting against hate speech." He said that Facebook employs 30,000 to 35,000 people to police Facebook content, works with law enforcement and 70 external fact-checking partners and has developed artificial intelligence that helps the company "proactively identify 89% of the hate speech" before it gets seen by large numbers of people. He says Facebook has "invested billions of dollars" in all of this.

But Greenblatt says Facebook isn't doing enough. And he questions Zuckerberg's assertion that the company has a natural economic interest in banishing hate, disinformation and conspiracy theories from its platform, insisting activists and policymakers need to continue pushing it to change. "Salacious content drives clicks," he says.

Not everyone wants Facebook's platform more vigorously policed. At the congressional hearing, Republican lawmakers attacked Zuckerberg for censoring too much. They repeatedly expressed concern that the company was using its content moderation system to stifle conservative views. "I'm concerned that people who manage the net ... are ending up using this as a political screen," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Sensenbrenner said he was concerned that Twitter and Facebook were taking down content that suggested that hydroxychloroquine could be an effective treatment against COVID-19, a claim that President Trump has repeatedly expressed support for and that scientists have repeatedly said lacks credible evidence.

During the livestream of the congressional hearing, it felt like both parties were working the ref of the virtual public square and that Zuckerberg was in an awkward position where he was insisting he's not an "arbiter of truth" while also feeling huge pressure to be an arbiter of truth.

With the initial monthlong boycott now over, Greenblatt says Facebook has failed to meet the campaign's demands but the campaign isn't giving up the fight. For the time being, you'll likely continue seeing your friends and family members spreading bogus information and crazy conspiracy theories alongside the never-ending deluge of baby and engagement photos in your Facebook feed.

Call it the Paranoid Style in American Politics 2.0.

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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.
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