For years, large tech platforms like Google and Facebook have deflected complaints about their roles spreading harmful, offensive, or outright false information by insisting on their own neutrality. Even as Facebook faces down questions about its role spreading misinformation during last year’s election — including misleading and divisive ads that were purchased by Russian government–linked trolls — its executives fall back on the pieties of neutral platformism. Asked recently if Facebook would have allowed the same ads had they been purchased by American citizens, COO Sheryl Sandberg recited the company’s mantra: “When you allow free expression, you allow free expression.”
This is a powerful argument to American consumers, who have an intuitive and passionate belief in their free-speech rights. By this line of thinking, Facebook and Google should be neutral platforms, because anything else would abridge free-speech rights. But it’s important to understand what “neutrality” really means in the context of online platforms and political ads. That is: it’s not hands-off, we-give-you-the-park-you-bring-your-soapbox neutrality. In a recent example reported by Bloomberg, Facebook and Google’s “neutrality” was put toward helping a virulently Islamophobic anti-refugee campaign target the voters it wanted to influence.
Google and Facebook, similarly, worked closely with Secure America Now as it spent several million dollars on election-season ads, according to the people who worked on the campaign. On June 16 of last year, for instance, sales managers from Google’s elections team hunkered down in its New York offices with officials from Secure America Now and Harris Media to talk about how to improve their digital ad campaigns.
Facebook’s collaboration with Secure America Now went beyond optimizing its ad reach, and included efforts to test new technology. In one instance, Facebook used the Secure America Now campaign to try out a vertical video format, which the Facebook reps were eager to see used on a large scale.
In both cases, the companies have direct relationships with their clients. They are actively assisting these campaigns in spreading their message, not standing at a distance and pleading ignorance. The Facebook video format test was later turned into a case study for examining their product.
Google and Facebook, for all their size and innovative energy, are advertising companies. They make their money from advertising, and it makes sense, from that perspective, that they would want to ensure that deep-pocketed clients have a good and effective experience on their platforms. But that kind of help is not the “neutrality” you might envision when Google and Facebook make their “we’re just the pipes” defenses: It’s an active neutrality that makes Facebook and Google partners with clients as well as tools with users.
Furthermore, it’s a neutrality that makes them not just culpable but hypocritical. Laborious assistance to an anti-refugee group can be difficult to square with companies that are at the same time waging legal challenges to the president’s Muslim ban, or pushing inclusiveness and openness in an increasingly divided society. At the very least, activity like what is described in Bloomberg’s report puts the lie to the notion that these companies aren’t actively assisting messages that their own stated values are in conflict with.