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Would Facebook rather protect its advertisers than its users?

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Facebook claims to have cracked its rather awkward 'ads on offensive pages' problem.

This week the social network's Director of Policy announced the site has completed the task of 'narrowing down the number of pages where ads will be shown'.  Which is a polite way of saying that they have identified parts of Facebook which are so repellent, no advertiser would wish to appear alongside its content.

This isn't the result of any drive for greater responsibility from Facebook, nor indeed any advertiser's initiative. It stems from a campaign by  The Everyday Sexism Project, who noticed an alarming number of 'pro-rape' pages on the site and launched a campaign to persuade advertisers to withdraw their contracts in protest. They succeeded. Nissan, Nationwide and others withheld their budgets, spurring Facebook to into action.
Interestingly, Facebook haven't taken this opportunity to condemn the use of their pages for the promotion of sexual violence and extremism. Instead, they are simply reassuring their paymasters that campaigns can resume without further embarrassment.

Citing 'freedom of speech', the network suggests it is very comfortable with the offending content. "There should be a broad range of offensive content that one can publish within the law" comments the aforementioned Director of Policy. Whether incitement to rape falls within this remit is a moot point, but this isn't about acceptable use of Facebook pages, it's about advertising and therefore money.

Facebook ads are behavioural. That is to say, once the site has identified your user status and preferences, it serves appropriate ads which then follow you around the network. This is stressed in Facebook's explanations, presumably to nullify the notion that Nissan made a conscious decision to book space on a violent or sexist page.  So these latest changes are an attempt to prevent ads following users to 'nasty' content, which previously gave rise to screenshots of ads for Sky and M&S laid neatly against some stomach churning content.
Well, bully for Facebook and their clients. But read between the lines and what we're actually being told is that Facebook will continue to carry 'pro-rape' pages as long as they don't upset the revenue streams.

Freedom of speech is a vital component in a democratic society. The right to criticise, provoke, argue and condemn is a right we should and must protect. But that doesn't mean any media outlet has a duty to host material which seeks to normalise ideas based on harm to others. Quite the opposite. A website with the clout and influence of Facebook actually has a duty to protect its members from prejudice and violence. With great power (and wealth) comes great responsibility.

I find it genuinely surprising that Facebook's policy on the creation of violent material is so lax. The advertiser strike clearly demonstrates there is nothing to be gained from carrying deeply objectionable pages. And I cannot accept that the site doesn't have the technological capability to moderate the behaviour of its members.

Of course, removing hideous views from one social network doesn't prevent people from holding poisonous opinions - but nor does it represent a move against freedom of speech. It simply sends the message that Facebook is a compassionate, welcoming, supportive and friendly place. If nothing else, that has to be good for business.

In the real world, it is reasonable to expect a workplace, hotel, shop or gym to be intolerant of obnoxious and dangerous individuals. Why should a virtual space be any different?

Magnus Shaw is a writer, consultant and blogger 

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