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‘Death to Putin’? Meta’s mostly okay with that on its platform

March 11, 2022, 5:48 PM UTC

Meta finds itself ensconced in yet another free-speech kerfuffle, one that shows the Facebook and Instagram parent just can’t win for losing.

The latest brouhaha centers on a Reuters report Thursday evening that Meta will let residents of 12 Eastern European and Western Asian countries call for violence against Russian soldiers and the leaders of Russia and Belarus on the company’s social media platforms. 

The temporarily acceptable content, which would otherwise violate Meta’s speech policies, includes the phrase “death to the Russian invaders” and generic calls for the untimely demise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Detailed, specific threats of imminent violence and calls for harm to Russian civilians remain prohibited.

Meta officials defended the decision as righteous support of political speech and the oppressed Ukrainian people. Still, the decision prompted tsk-tsking at home and an immediate response abroad. 

Meta’s many critics largely seized on the pronouncement as an example of Meta playing judge, jury, and executioner—roles that the company has proved woefully unfit to carry out. As Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, succinctly put it in a tweet: “Facebook bans incitement to violence except when it’s calling for political assassinations of the right bad people. And then it’s fine.”

The Russian government, meanwhile, moved Friday morning to label Meta as a terrorist organization, which would effectively criminalize its operations in that country, according to Bloomberg and Interfax. In turn, Facebook and Instagram, the latter of which is hugely popular in Russia, would be blocked.

So was Meta on solid ethical ground to make this free speech exception? In this narrow case, I’d argue yes. 

The idea that Meta could craft speech policies that apply to all manner of geopolitical crises feels fantastical. Here, Putin has so clearly engaged in an unjustified assault on innocent people that the forces of resistance deserve more latitude in rallying support. Meta’s protocols for the Russia-Ukraine war also are more nuanced than news headlines might indicate.

In addition, Meta has approved of broad calls for violence as a proxy for political speech before—it briefly allowed the phrase “death to Khamenei,” a rallying cry for regime change in Iran, on its platform during protests last year—and this decision feels squarely within that vein. 

Notably, Meta also did not remove content that showed U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham urging the Russian people to assassinate Putin, an important (if tactically stupid) political development.

But do I want Meta making these kinds of life-or-death decisions amid more complicated international conflicts, such as Israeli-Palestinian strife or U.S. wars in the Middle East? Absolutely not. And therein lies Meta’s problem.

After years of violating our privacy, haphazardly censoring speech, denying its role in shaping our toxic political discourse, and so on, Meta has exhausted any benefit of the doubt. We’ve seen Meta proclaim a noble set of ethics—authenticity, safety, privacy, dignity—and repeatedly fall short of meeting them. At its core, we don’t trust them.

Meta might emerge from this saga relatively unscathed, minus the minor financial hit of any Russian sanctions. Even those who oppose the principle of Meta’s decision Thursday will strain to defend Russian victims over Ukrainian citizens.

But Meta will face tougher decisions on political speech in wartime, requiring a long-needed recommitment to its values.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

No mind tricks here. European regulators formally launched an antitrust investigation into whether a once-secret pact between ad giants Google and Facebook violated competition laws, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. The European Union and U.K. inquiry stems from a 2018 agreement, now known as Jedi Blue, in which Google purportedly gave Facebook special privileges on its ad platform in exchange for Facebook ditching a competitor’s technology. Google and Meta, which changed its name from Facebook last year, have previously denied any wrongdoing in a lawsuit containing similar allegations brought by a group of U.S. state attorneys general.

What a buzzkill. Electric vehicle upstart Rivian slashed its 2022 production forecast in half Thursday, cutting its target to 25,000 units amid supply-chain issues and an inability to secure enough semiconductors. The disclosure marks another strike against the California-based company, which blasted onto the scene with a blockbuster IPO late last year and immediately cooled off following reports of manufacturing problems. Rivian shares, which were down 7% in midday trading Friday, are 79% below their all-time high in mid-November.

The rout drags on. Chinese tech stocks suffered through another brutal week, falling about 10% as concerns mounted about regulatory crackdowns in Asia and the U.S., the Financial Times reported. The Hang Sang Tech Index, which tracks 30 companies on the Hong Kong stock exchange, closed down 4% on Friday, finishing out a rough week for top Chinese tech firms Alibaba, Tencent, and DiDi. Several developments this week, including a Securities and Exchange Commission announcement that five Chinese tech companies on the New York exchange could face delisting, weighed on the sector.

Back in the game. Online payments giant Stripe unveiled several products Thursday that support cryptocurrencies on its platforms, reversing some of its previous opposition to crypto, TechCrunch reported. The added support will help crypto exchanges and non-fungible token marketplaces, among other similar outfits, to accept payment using traditional currencies. Stripe previously halted its support for Bitcoin payments on its products in 2018, but company executives cited technological developments and increased public interest as reasons for returning to crypto.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

It’s not easy being green. Who could’ve seen this coming? As companies race to make far-off pledges of going carbon-neutral, Microsoft just disclosed a dramatic emissions spike that casts more doubt on the authenticity of such commitments. The New York Times reported Thursday that the company’s carbon emissions rose 22% during a recent 12-month span, wiping out minimal progress made in the two prior years. Microsoft officials, who have pledged to go “carbon negative” by the end of the decade, said data center construction and hardware manufacturing led to the spike in 2020–21.  

From the article:

Microsoft has sought to show that with committed leaders and sufficient funding, companies can effectively reduce their net emissions to zero in the coming years, bolstering international efforts to limit the rise in global temperatures. 

But the surge in Microsoft’s emissions suggests that it and other companies may have trouble meeting their goals. And since the increase resulted from strong demand for products, it is a reminder that robust business growth can often mean pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Silicon Valley is losing its death grip as the geography of tech jobs changes, by Colin Lodewick

What are CBDCs? Biden’s executive order on crypto may lead to a U.S. digital currency, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

White House’s executive order for crypto is a ‘watershed’ event, by Declan Harty

Peloton hires new supply chain head in overhaul of operations, by Mark Gurman and Bloomberg

Elon Musk sees 2-year-old son X as his protégé and takes him to business meetings, girlfriend Grimes reveals, by Mahnoor Khan

BEFORE YOU GO

My, how the tables have turned. What’s old is new again in music. As streaming services continue to gobble up listeners, vinyl keeps finding an audience, Fortune’s Jonathan Vanian reported Thursday. The Recording Industry Association of America said vinyl sales hit $1 billion in 2021, a 61% year-over-year increase and the highest total since 1986. Even more perplexing: Compact disc sales jumped 21%, hitting $584 million. Don’t feel like you need to shed any tears for Spotify, though. Its revenue reached $10.6 billion in 2021, up 23% from the prior year.

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