Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Surprising War of ADL vs. Facebook

Am I the only one who's surprised by the intensity with which the ADL has been going after Facebook recently?

I want to be clear: For purposes of this post, I mean "surprised" in a wholly value-neutral way. I'm neither saying "about time" nor "this is out of control". One can make arguments either way about whether the ADL is right or not, and those arguments are worth having, but here I'm really just focusing on the descriptive character, because what we're seeing just seems very out of character for what we know about the ADL's standard operating procedures.

There are many strategies towards trying to effectuate social change. Some are more confrontational, others are more collaborative; some are more utopian, others are more pragmatic. Along that spectrum, I think it's fair to say the ADL tends to work mostly within established systems and structures rather than radically challenging them. Again, that's not a judgment -- there's a place for radical disruption and there's a place for negotiated advances, and it just so happens that the ADL tends to be more about the latter.

And that's why their campaign against Facebook stands out. Facebook is a tech heavyweight, the sort of entity with whom the ADL typically approaches in a more collaborative spirit, knowing full well that this will involve negotiation-with-the-devil compromises and suboptimal, half-a-loaf-is-better outcomes. Whatever when can say about the virtues and defects of that approach, the ADL is hardly naïve on the subject and is relatively comfortable in its own skin as an insider operation. And as I recall, initially that was how the ADL was relating to Facebook as well -- for example, bringing Facebook execs onboard its then-new Center for Technology and Society in 2017 specifically to help combat hate speech online.

But boy is that not their tenor today. Over the past few years, the ADL has been unabashedly presenting Facebook not as a partner to be reformed, but as a menace to be confronted head on. They've organized an advertiser boycott under the banner "Stop hate for profit". Their CEO has said of Facebook "I don't think ever before a single company has been responsible for so much misfortune." They've savaged Facebook for permitting Holocaust denial and for promoting manipulative political misinformation. It is, I think it's fair to say, a full-blown war, of the sort I cannot recall the ADL waging against any institution as prominent as Facebook. Again, this is just not how the ADL typically operates when relating to organizations of Facebook's size and stature.

So while the normative analysis of whether the ADL is right or wrong, or should be doing more or less campaigning like this, is plenty interesting, for the moment I'm just curious about how we got here. What is it that made the ADL break its normal boundaries? Just what happened during the earlier period of collaboration that seemingly made the ADL completely lose patience with Facebook as an even potentially viable partner? I bet there is a very interesting story here, and I'd love to hear about it.

1 comment:

Matthew Saroff said...

I'm an optimist, so my guess is that it is the result of a learning process. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

Facebook has encouraged the formation of right wing groups to increase engagement, created targeting for advertisements that would systematically exclude minorities from housing and job opportunities, etc.

And that's ignoring Facebook's active role in genocides in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc. in the name of encouraging engagement.