Why Facebook’s betrayal of civil society activists won’t matter

A recent New York Times story tells of how Facebook has been running an aggressive campaign against civil society activists critical of the social media giant. The attempted smear campaign claimed the activists were agents of philanthropist George Soros who is already the target of a right-wing campaign to demonise him.

The organisation I work for, International Media Support, often engages critically with Facebook through the Global Network Initiative on the negative impact of the platform on the situation of our local partners — journalists and human rights defenders in some of the most difficult parts of the world. Like many other human rights groups, we have even received a couple of small donations from Facebook over the years — donations that have been used directly to try and hold Facebook to account. I wish we had done a better job.

Alongside our main funding from Scandinavian governments, we also receive funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to promote independent journalism and the right to freedom of expression. Perhaps we should also fear an attack if we get too critical of Facebook? If they are actively attacking philanthropic organisations and civil society groups critical of them, is it really wise of us to continue to work with them to try and limit their negative impact on society?

Unfortunately, we have no other choice. Even though International Media Support would do fine without engaging with the corporate social responsibility efforts of Facebook, our local independent media partners in Somalia, Myanmar, Syria and beyond would not. Despite Facebook betraying them, our partners rely heavily on the social media platform to drive traffic to their content and reach their readers, viewers and listeners.

We used to think Facebook’s business had the unfortunate side-effect of undermining democracy, not that they were actively attempting to wreck it. With this latest revelation they have not just failed at trying to do the right thing or to prevent the wrong thing from happening. They have taken action  with malice and intent. Facebook denies knowledge of these actions after they were criticized in an open letter from Open Society Foundations and have since fired the opposition research firm they had employed for the smear campaign.

We have been disappointed time and time again to see Facebook’s failure to monitor hate and disinformation on their platform. We thought they were deeply irresponsible and in over their heads, but we continued to give them the benefit of the doubt. To learn that they actively participate in the distortion of information and the dissemination of propaganda is so unacceptable we can hardly fathom it.

And still, we will likely continue to take part in their CSR exercises. Otherwise, our journalism partners will be unable to reach their audiences, unable to make whatever little income they are able to generate from the traffic Facebook drives to their websites. We will continue full of disgust over Facebook’s betrayal of civil society rights activists, knowing that they will target us with a smear campaign if they feel the need to.