The word Orwellian is overused. Yet few terms better describe the barrage of adverts that Facebook has been unleashing on British billboards.
In London on Wednesday, to choose a day at random, the social media juggernaut told rush-hour train commuters that “what matters to you matters to us” and it was “removing offensive content faster than ever”.
The advert did not mention that 12 days earlier, a white nationalist gunman had used Facebook to live broadcast a horrific 17-minute video of his attack on worshipping Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead. Nor did it acknowledge the threats of boycotts and lawsuits the company is facing as a result. Or the email that New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, John Edwards, sent Facebook executives to decry the “deep, deep pain and harm from the live-streamed massacre” on their network.
The aggrieved and outraged are by no means new problems for the Silicon Valley titans that control so much of online life. But the tactics some are deploying to deflect their critics now share a chilly resonance with the doublethink George Orwell created in his Nineteen Eighty-Four novel.
对于在如此大程度上控制着人们的线上生活的硅谷巨头而言，这种悲伤和愤怒绝不是新问题。但是，现在一些硅谷巨头用来转移外界批评的策略，与乔治•奥威尔(George Orwell)在其《一九八四》(Nineteen Eighty-Four)小说中创造的“双重思想”如出一辙，这令人不寒而栗。
In another advert that was hard to avoid in the UK this week, Facebook said it wanted to help combat bullying, “so we’ve created a Bullying Prevention Hub, full of advice on how to tackle it”.
在另一则上周在英国铺天盖地的广告中，Facebook表示它希望帮助打击霸凌行为，“所以我们创建了一个霸凌预防中心(Bullying Prevention Hub)，提出了各种各样如何解决该问题的建议”。
The company has spent years telling people how concerned it is about bullying. It has also worked with charities to curb the problem in schools. No wonder. A study of more than 150,000 young people in 30 countries over a 21-year period found last year that cyberbullying victims were more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behaviour.
Yet time and time again, Facebook has only changed its ways when confronted with an uncontainable tide of public outrage, like the fury that erupted this year over the suicide of British schoolgirl Molly Russell.
After her death, her family discovered material relating to depression and suicide on her Instagram account. In January, her father said he believed the Facebook-owned site had helped to kill his daughter. Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, later warned social media companies could be banned if they failed to remove harmful content. Last month, Instagram finally acted. It agreed to ban graphic self-harm images— a move campaigners said was long overdue.
Mr Hancock returned to the fray this week, revealing ministers were looking at new laws to force social media companies to take down false information about vaccines spread by “anti-vaxxers”. Health officials around the world are grappling with a surge in measles cases. Europe recorded more than 82,500 cases last year, the highest level in a decade and triple the number in 2017. Misinformation is rife on social media networks. But Facebook took little action, despite spending another small fortune on an ad campaign last year declaring “Fake news is not our friend”. Finally, this month it promised to curb anti-vaccine hoaxes.
On Wednesday, nearly two weeks after Christchurch, the company said it would ban white nationalist content.
Facebook is not alone. Google has also deployed dubious tactics to persuade us it cares about the fortunes of companies that its rise has drained of revenues, not least newspapers. Together, Google and Facebook control nearly 60 per cent of the digital advertising market in the US, where so many papers have closed that “news deserts” have crept across the country. One expert reckons half the nation’s 3,143 counties have just one newspaper, usually a small weekly, and 200 have none at all.
Both companies have launched measures to tackle the problem. Google last year pledged to spend $300m over three years on a “news initiative” to support subscriptions and fight fake news. This may help at the margins. But such sums are a paltry fraction of the billions the pair makes each year and pale before the scale of a problem which, let us not forget, is partly their own doing.
It is not unlike a gang of arsonists returning to the smouldering wreck of a library they just incinerated and donating a comic book to get it going again. The tech groups will doubtless keep trying to persuade us they mean well. Yet they should be careful.
The European Parliament just passed a copyright directive aimed at making them compensate the media for using their content. More regulation is inevitable. Silicon Valley’s powerhouses have proven beyond all doubt that despite what they say, what matters to us does not matter to them in the least.