#FacebookBlackout: How Activists are Defending Democracy by Logging Off

“We believe in free speech, as well as the value of truth in safeguarding our democracy,” the #FacebookBlackout creators explain to founder Mark Zuckerberg in the open letter on their campaign website. “We understand your reluctance to police political speech, and agree with you that our government is ultimately responsible for setting the standards for political advertising for the common good. However, we believe your position allowing amoral politicians—and the shadowy forces who support them—to lie without consequence is untenable, and frankly, un-American.”

“Our ask is simple,” they assert later. “Transparency.” And until they get it, those activists aren’t logging on.

The #FacebookBlackout campaign is calling for a 48-hour Facebook blackout beginning on December 9, 2019—International Anti-Corruption Day. (Ms. will be participating, eschewing Facebook and all its subsidiaries in protest of the company’s actions.)

The campaign was spurred on by Facebook’s decision in October to amend its political advertising policy—exempting politicians from Facebook’s community standards and fact-checking in the name of free speech and instead agreeing to run any political ad, even ones containing blatant lies, that were paid for by politicians.

Daniel G. Newman, president of the nonpartisan democracy organization MapLight, predicted that Facebook’s decision would make it “the most powerful propaganda amplifier in history, boosting campaigns that traffic in falsehoods.”

Zuckerberg didn’t seem to mind. “We care about our country and want to work our government to do good things,” he was heard saying in response to critiques of the decision in a leaked audio recording. “But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”

The decision was critical in the current landscape, because these new lax guidelines give the President carte blanche to say whatever is necessary to shape his narrative—regardless if they are true.

Since September, the Trump campaign has reportedly spent about $1.6 million on Facebook posts attack the ongoing democratic inquiry into impeachment. In fact, the investigation into possible wrongdoing by the president is the campaign’s most expensive topic, other than Trump himself. But Facebook has always been central to Trump’s campaign.

“I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign manager, told 60 Minutes. “I think Donald Trump won, but I think Facebook was the method, it was the highway in which his car drove on.”

That’s why activists are rising up next week to demand more accountability from the social media platform, which has already faced Congressional inquiry and widespread criticism for playing a role, however unwitting, in the attempts by foreign agents to sway the results of the 2016 elections. “We call on all citizens of this country, and everyone globally who is repulsed by authoritarianism, to stand with us,” the #FacebookBlackout open letter concludes. “Stand with truth.”

With the 2020 presidential campaigns now underway, calling for Zuckerberg to monitor the website more carefully couldn’t be more critical. Sarah Nicholas, who spearheaded the campaign alongside her son, told Ms. that she sees the blackout as also an inherently feminist act.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to confront the President’s malicious ads, from a man who has done everything in his power to set women back,” she explained, “is an affront to all women.”

About

Jonathan Chang is an editorial intern at Ms.