Facebook is part of a toxic ecosystem of hate – it should be regulated or shut down

Jason Wilson
Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

An investigation by the Guardian reveals that an online network has found a way to make money by pushing a steady stream of low-grade rightwing propaganda at low-information users around the world.

We might argue, then, that what they created was a miniature version of Facebook’s own business.

The investigation suggests that several deceptive operators engaged in a “covert plot to control some of Facebook’s largest far right pages”.

But it appears they did so not for ideological reasons, but because they understood it as a way to make cash by directing ordinary users to amateurish websites dripping with ads.

While under their control, the pages stepped up racist attacks on Muslims — especially female Muslim politicians like Ilhan Omar in the US and Mehreen Faruqi in Australia.

They pilloried others, like Jeremy Corbyn and Justin Trudeau, who were depicted as capitulating to Islamist terror.

But evidence uncovered by the investigation suggests it was less that these were true believers than that they understood that racism begets rage, which in turn leads to clicks and cash.

The scheme worked in part because of the segment of users it was targeted at, those whose buttons are easily pressed.

In the words of Timothy Graham, a QUT researcher interviewed for the investigation, habitués of such pages are prone to consume and, importantly, share “content that is highly emotive and contains polarising and extreme material”. Their willingness to smash the share button means that they are “great for business”.

The retreat of tolerance; the disintegration of liberal democracies into warring, hostile camps; the flood of death threats that high profile Muslim legislators of colour receive — these are mere externalities from the point of view of the entrepreneurs of hate. Even if it’s possible to clean up the mess they made, they likely won’t be responsible for doing it.

In all of these respects the con artists exhibited the same kind of moral bankruptcy that has led Facebook itself through a string of scandals.

Related: Monetising hate: covert enterprise co-opts far-right Facebook pages to churn out anti-Islamic posts

Facebook may not actively desire the fragmentation of polities, the rising wave of extremism and the performance of pogroms. But enraged users are engaged users, and the company’s profits depend on allowing space for hate to flourish.

Facebook has allowed unscrupulous companies to harvest user data for micro-targeted ads, for purposes including election interference.

Facebook and other platforms it owns, like WhatsApp, were the platform of choice for those involved in genocide in Myanmar and lynchings in India. Facebook and its family of apps still provide key platforms for fascists in the west to propagandise, proselytise, and organise.

But the company is, in practical terms, unrepentant.

Facebook can’t, won’t and never will voluntarily engage in the necessary amount of proactive moderation which would inhibit hate, even if, as in this case, the enterprise appeared to be a flagrant violation of its stated rules.

Facebook’s profit margins depend on keeping moderation costs low, and engagement high. Its existing moderators are reportedly overworked and underpaid. Mark Zuckerberg’s public moves and private meetings suggest he is much more concerned about disingenuous rightwing claims about tech censorship than he is about the platform’s incubation of hate speech.

Even the political pressure arising from the various scandals have not made Facebook stop and reconsider.

In response to the Guardian story, Facebook has performed a now-familiar ritual. It has shut some of the pages down, and made the same mollifying noises it offers whenever journalists discover a new vector for hate speech, or a new racket on the site.

But as in many similar instances in the past, the damage is done. The death threats can’t be taken back, polarisation cannot easily be reversed, and open Islamophobia has become a little more normalised.

We shouldn’t be fooled by Facebook’s rote apologies. We should expect that, absent some significant changes, the company will continue to offer space for hatred to be expressed, and even monetised on its platforms. We should bear in mind the extent to which Facebook itself has monetised hatred and even violence.

Related: Breaking up social media giants an option to deal with misinformation, Labor says

We should understand that Facebook will never effectively regulate itself. Given the history set out above, this is outrageous. But that outrage should lead us to consider drastic remedies.

In polities whose gridlock and polarisation is in significant part a consequence of the rise of social media, we must nevertheless find a democratic means to regulate Facebook and other social media companies. It’s not an exaggeration to say that democracy itself may be at stake.

If we can’t find a way to regulate it effectively, we might consider a course of action that others, like Vox’s Matt Yglesias have counselled, and turn the website off.