Kim Kardashian took to social media yesterday to announce that she would be taking 24 hours off of Facebook and Instagram to boycott its lack of action and failure to get a hold on the spread of disinformation, false news and hate speech. Other celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Demi Lovato have joined in on the effort to “go dark” for 24 hours to raise awareness about the problem, but question remains on whether this is an effective form of protest, or if these same celebrities could use their massive platforms to further educate their fans on what disinformation is and how to recognize it.
The #StopHateForProfit campaign aims to spread awareness about how social media companies are complicit in the spread of harmful disinformation and hate speech. In the 2020 political climate, disinformation has only escalated significantly as conspiracy theories like QAnon make their way into the mainstream and climate change deniability or COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation is commonly seen on Facebook and Instagram news feeds. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfolded after the 2016 election, the era of weaponized data only gained traction as global leaders began using the platforms to skew political conversations as they see fit. In America, the divisive nature of the current political climate is only a sample of what is and has been a reality for years now.
In the Philippines, disinformation plays a key role in the spread of propaganda that helps maintain President Rodrigo Duterte’s power. Influencers and local celebrities are weaponized by the government as propaganda tools on social media to spin a positive portrayal of Duterte’s infamous “war against drugs.” In reality, the administration has been called mob-like, and is responsible for the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people—most of which are living in impoverished areas or are addicts. Real numbers on how many have been killed are up for debate as the country has launched several campaigns aimed at creating transparency, but human rights groups around the world suggest those numbers could be falsified.
On Facebook, Duterte’s use of thousands of bot accounts has been widely reported on. The administration’s use of disinformation to control public perception and fuel hate-speech against addicts is one of the most famous cases in the world. Maria Ressa, a Rappler journalist that exposed the bots to the world in 2016, was honored as TIME Magazine‘s Person of the Year alongside Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 as one of the “guardians” of free speech. Ressa, who fights for freedom of the press around the world, was found guilty of ‘cyber libel‘ earlier this year. Ressa has been widely credited for exposing how Duterte uses social media as a weapon, and how the government corruption has already led to thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
But what is happening in the Philippines is only one of many cases that demonstrate Facebook’s ubiquitous global power to shape the narrative of virtually every story. Just this week Buzfeed News reported that a whistleblower claims that Facebook has repeatedly ignored its position as a global communication power, an active choice that has led to the abuse of the platform throughout dozens of nations. The whistleblower alleged that Facebook has known about how political leaders employ armies of bots to manipulate elections for some time now, and chose to ignore signs that its platform was being used to manipulate elections in places like the Ukraine, India, Spain, Brazil, Ecuador and Azerbaijan, to name a few.
The news that Facebook creates real-world consequences is nothing new. In 2019 the platform publicly acknowledged that it played a role in the spread of hate speech that fueled a genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya ethnic minority. In response, the company pledged to find and remove any hate-speech that targeted the ethnic minority and fueled misinformation that led to political support for the genocide. However, it also highlighted that Facebook’s presence in developing nations poses a unique need for expert knowledge in the language and cultural nuances behind how local people communicate with one another on the platform. In other words, it required moderators with an expertise in Burmese culture and language, but Facebook’s moderators were largely American and hired by a third party company based out of Arizona. Plus, Facebook moderators themselves were developing PTSD and other psychological issues from having to interact with harmful and violent content at such a heavy scale.
Combating these issues, however, would require Facebook to re-address its entire business model to approach content as a publisher rather than an open forum wherein users can post freely and face moderation later on. With so much hate speech, misleading content or clear disinformation floating around, Facebook must grapple with its position as a propaganda tool and find a way to course correct. How, though, is the question. Experts argue that Facebook’s business model would have to be re-addressed in order to do that, and without government oversight those changes are unlikely to come from the company willingly.
The celebrity-endorsed campaign to Stop Hate For Profit suggests that social media companies should pledge a full course correction to combat the spread of disinformation. One of the bullet points calls for social networks to remove and refund advertisements that run alongside manipulative memes and other misleading content. It also suggests that companies like Facebook dedicate entire teams to civil rights around the world, putting a civil rights leader and activist alongside other high-level positions within the company.
On Instagram, the #StopHateForProfit hashtag plays host to less than 15,000 posts. For context, the controversial #SaveTheChildren hashtag associated with the popular conspiracy theory and disinformation powerhouse QAnon plays host to nearly 800,000 posts, and it was temporarily banned last month. Kim Kardashian, one of the most powerful celebrities participating in the social media blackout, is vocal about human rights issues to begin with. The entrepreneur spends her free time working with human rights groups to advocate for the wrongfully convicted, and she and her sisters have spoken at-length about the Armenian genocide in the past.
But question remains on whether “going dark” on social media—a platform that requires near constant attention lest users run the risk of being ignored and forgotten—is the answer. Earlier this year, a popular Instagram trend called #BlackoutTuesday asked social media users to post black squares using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to show support and solidarity for the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis. However, the squares did little more than clog related hashtags and unintentionally censor important information related to the movement.
While slightly different, a decision to stop communicating altogether to raise awareness about a communication problem that plagues the entire globe seems similarly ill thought out. There’s also the fact that the Kardashian-Jenner empire, though a variable in what would have been an inevitable result, played a major role in how social media monetizes through advertising.
There is no denying that Facebook and Instagram are vital tools to the Kardashian machine. The family used Instagram to announce the conclusion of their long-running reality TV show earlier this month, and are largely attributed to the birth of influencer marketing on social media, an industry that now boasts a multi billion dollar valuation. Kim Kardashian-West’s pivot from reality TV star to social justice activist is without a doubt a good use of her platform as a celebrity. Her work has helped to raise awareness about prison reform to a demographic that may not have sought out the information on their own prior to the explosive discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked earlier this summer.
Similarly, Kardashian-West’s fans are likely more aware of how platform manipulation impacts global politics than they were before. However, 24 hours of “going dark” is likely not enough to make a real difference, especially when over a dozen promotional ads are still live on Kim Kardashian-West’s Instagram story promoting her various ventures. If anything, the publicity surrounding this action likely funneled traffic onto her page, where users were then greeted with the ads.