The Price of Freedom

Jean Paul-Sartre famously remarked that humanity is “condemned” to be free because freedom comes at the cost of being responsible for all the actions one takes. These words have might have echoed in the boardrooms of Facebook over the last week, where the freedom of users was prioritised as an advertising boycott gathered steam against the company’s deliberate policy towards fact-checking. It raises the fundamental question whether the tech giant should be liable for the content on its platform.

Issue? The initial boycott among advertisers was prompted by the company’s refusal to fact-check a post by President Trump. The movement has now grown much bigger with The New York Times reporting that more than 300 advertisershave pulled ads. Giants like Pfizer, Starbucks and Unilever have all joined forces in solidarity with the #StopHateForProfit campaign which aims to hold the tech giant to account for allegedly spreading misinformation.

Voting with marketing budgets during a time of crisis seems like a sound business move. Advertising budgets are under pressure as companies are squeezed by the lockdown. It makes sense for them to weaponize their marketing spend and win over increasingly purpose-driven consumers.

Response? Bar the short-lived dip in Facebook’s stock price immediately after major companies announced their support for the boycott, the company’s valuation has bounced back in a matter of days. According to the Economist, its $70bn ad business is built on 8m advertisers, most of them tiny companies with marketing budgets in the hundreds or thousands of dollars and often reliant on Facebook as an essential digital storefront. The 100 largest advertisers on the site account for less than 20% of total revenue.

Facebook’s promise to connect the world manifests a cosmopolitan philosophy. However, as the most important digital landowner, Facebook finds itself in no man’s land when it comes to fact-checking.

Should Facebook own the content on its platform, it would mean that it is no longer a platform but rather a content creator. This shift would expose the tech giant to unwanted liability.

This is a difficult paradox to square. On the one hand, Facebook is the epitome of the liberal principle of free speech. On the other, free speech has limits which must be enforced. Facebook is rightly reluctant to do so as this would threaten the very nature of its business model which is based on the idea that Facebook is a platform where people come to share their own content. As Sartre illustrated, the relationship between freedom and responsibility is a complex one.

As such Facebook is an easy punching bag for companies like Coca Cola and Ford which can cut marketing costs while also appearing to be doing right by their customers. This ad exodus is an opportunistic move. After all, nothing was stopping these companies from taking action themselves rather than hiding behind Facebook.

Yet it also reveals a deeper problem for the tech giant. Given its dominant market share, it has become a public service utility which can decide which politicians the public can hear from.

Although Facebook may appear as if it has been muddling through in the last four years, also understand that winds of political change may be coming. A win for Joe Biden might re-establish respect for public discourse which the executive branch has not abided by recently. It might mean that Facebook finds itself in such difficult situations less frequently. If a flamboyant Trump remains in the White House, expect more opportunism from advertisers and more scrutiny over Facebook’s “platform” business model.

Preslav Tonkov

Preslav Tonkov