In Silicon Valley, money talks. Since it’s Valley money, its voice carries further. Money preached the dotcom boom in the Noughties and talks up the digital agenda on Nasdaq. But now, for the first time, in an industry fanatically focused on the future, money is urging the Silicon Valley giants to consider their ethics. Facebook has finally been confronted with the problem of hate speech that it had tried to ignore for years, with Unilever joining a boycott by about 100 advertisers. One of the world’s biggest multinationals has imposed financial sanctions on the world’s biggest social media platform.
Facebook has about-faced. The platform, which had refused to deal with posts by President Trump that opponents read as voter intimidation, said that posts suppressing the popular vote or threatening violence were not on. But the company has wilfully lagged behind social media rival, Twitter, which had marked Trump’s tweets as “glorifying violence” and “manipulated media” in May and June. Facebook’s attempts to curb hate speech have been mere token gestures, and the latest update is just a patch. In reaction, Coca-Cola has signalled distrust by pulling its ads from the social network.
In its early years, the internet was embraced as an alternative universe, a haven of completely free speech, where the ugly side of human nature had free play because its games had no real-world implications. In the Nineties, hosting companies resisted attempts to curb hate speech and even child pornography, simultaneously pleading the freedom of speech and the inability to police third-party content. As the digital revolution built up and brick-and-mortar functions like banking moved online, the internet became a mirror of the offline world, and arguably should have been subject to everyday accountability and responsibilities. Technically, platform companies are only new avatars of the hosts of the Nineties. They host third-party content and have inherited the reluctance of their predecessors to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. But like them, they exist at the pleasure of those third parties, some of which are sources of huge revenues. In international affairs, sanctions are used to bring problematic nations in line. A similar process of financial apartheid could force companies the size of national economies to see reason. It has been used to curb modern slavery in sweat factories, and it is now being turned on the world’s biggest corporations. In Silicon Valley, money is talking again — not in the voice of greed, but of morality.
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