Facebook And The Profits Made From Hate
Social media giants make a fortune from online extremism. Andrew Billen meets Imran Ahmed, the man trying to persuade them to put public good ahead of business
In the week his press secretary twice cited a report naming 12 top spreaders of anti-vaccine propaganda, journalists asked President Biden about the social media companies that granted them platforms. He said they were “killing” the unvaccinated. Facebook was not happy and later the president “walked back” the comment. He had meant to accuse the antivaxxers. Facebook was not killing people.
Imran Ahmed is not walking anything back. “There are people gurgling for their breath in ICUs right now who are saying to their doctors, ‘I thought the vaccine would hurt me,’ he tells me. “Biden was right first time.”
Ahmed is the founder and chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the not-for-profit NGO that published the Disinformation Dozen report read in the White House. The CCDH is equally alarmed by anti-Semites, Islamophobes, climate-change deniers, transphobes, baiters of gender-critical feminists and now, murderous involuntary celibates, or incels.
Unlike Biden, however, Ahmed’s real target is the social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. They, he contends, make millions from hate, selling adverts around it even as they express their regret and promise to change, as in the present full-page Facebook advertisements proclaiming: “We’re collaborating with UK partners to reduce Covid-19 misinformation.”
The CCDH began small, and with 14 staff members is still small, although its impact is disproportionate and it’s getting under the internet giants’ skin. In July CCDH exposed how Gateway Pundit, a Trumpite stolen-election blog that incited the January attack on the Capitol, made its money. In seven months from last November, it had made $1.1 million from Google Ads placed around its content. And Google made nearly $500,000 from placing unwitting brands such as Canon and Georgetown University next to Gateway’s conspiracy theories.
Ahmed says the secret of the CCDH’s success is gaining the ear of decision-makers through lobbyists, the press and the deployment of sympathetic celebrities. “We can’t suppress anyone’s opinion or their ability to express their opinion, but what we can do is create costs for their speech. Someone’s freedom of speech is not destroyed by me expressing my freedom of speech to say, ‘You are murdering people with the speech you push out.’”
“By far the most important piece of work we did was Malgorithm. It was such a clever bit of research designed by my team. Essentially, we set up a series of accounts which were clean apart from following ten other Instagram accounts. We then saw what was recommended and recorded it.
“What we found was if you’re following wellness, it gives you antivax. If you follow antivax, it then feeds you antisemitism and QAnon. If you follow QAnon, it gives you antivax and Covid disinformation. It deepens and broadens people’s extremisms.”
Because if you believe one lie, you will believe another? “There are psychological reasons for it. What drives conspiracist thinking? It’s epistemic anxiety: not just anxiety about what’s true and what’s not, but ‘How do I even find out how to know what’s true and what’s not?’
It sounds like conspiracy theorist stuff, but is exactly what Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, told senators on Tuesday 5th October, 2021. in Washington. Facebook, she said on American television at the weekend, prioritised making money over the public good.
Ahmed’s background makes him as unlikely a player in the digital universe as Mark Zuckerberg (son of a dentist) or Jack Dorsey (nephew of a Catholic priest). Ahmed’s mother was illiterate, his father afflicted by health problems, and neither worked. Yet their son went to Manchester Grammar on a scholarship and excelled.
Working for Remain he witnessed a surge in Islamophobia, racism and conspiracy theories and was then horrified by the antisemitism taking a grip on Labour (he, incidentally, is an atheist). And all this hate was now just a gesture away on a phone. CCDH has not made him rich, he says without regret.
Ahmed recalls being taken to lunch by a “slimy guy” from the Internet Association, the global net’s trade body who asked him what he really wanted.
“I said to him, ‘Just get rid of the Nazis, and I will take my cat and I will move to Antigua and I will leave you the f*** alone.’ My job is to make myself redundant. Once government and self-regulation have made the companies behave themselves, once we’ve disrupted the hate actors sufficiently, there’s no job for us. Our simple and quite minimal aim is to socialise social media. Do that and I’ll go and do something else.”
This is a condensed version of Andrew Billen’s Times Article of 5th October, 2021. Click here to see the Full Article