More than 400 companies, including Coca-Cola, Adidas, Ford and Lego, have vowed to halt advertising on Facebook, in a growing protest over how it handles hate speech and other harmful content.
The campaign, Stop Hate for Profit and launched two weeks ago takes aim at Facebook’s advertising juggernaut, which accounted for more than 98% of the company’s nearly $70 billion revenue last year. The stated goal is “to force [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg to address the effect that Facebook has had on our society.” The advertising boycott is also extended to Facebook’s sister platform Instagram.
Microsoft was the first big name to publicly sign up and other corporations coming on board include retail chain Target, Dunkin’ Donuts and automaker Volkswagen said “Hate and dangerous online misinformation should not go unchecked. We expect our advertising partners to reflect our values, and Volkswagen — as well as other companies — must hold them to the same standards we demand of ourselves”.
Facebook disputes the idea that it financially benefits from toxic content. “We have absolutely no incentive to tolerate hate speech,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication, told CNN . “We don’t like it, our users don’t like it. Advertisers understandably don’t like it.”
The company says it spends billions of dollars on safety and works with outside groups to review its policies, claiming nearly 90% of hate speech is removed by automated systems. “That’s why we’ll continue to redouble our efforts, because we have a zero-tolerance approach to hate speech.
Unfortunately, zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero occurrence.”, said Clegg. He’s not alone. Apple CEO Tim Cook is all for this censorship, stating “ it’s a sin to not ban certain people …We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division, and violence: You have no home here.”
A whole lot of virtue signalling going on, to misquote Little Richard, but what’s it all about? Quite simply, it hinges on whether social media platforms are classified as tech companies or publishers and thereby hangs a huge global tale.
The companies initially claimed the former but in a few test cases this was challenged and they were warned that they must take responsibility for anything and everything posted by their billions of followers in much the same way as a media CEO would be expected to take full responsibility for the content of their newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasts and so on.
But the counter argument is that social media sites do not hire trained media experts, nor is it their responsibility to police everything posted by the public. Rather those posting should take personal responsibility for what they write and if they transgress publishing laws it is they who should face the consequences.
Add to that mix the concept of free speech versus censorship and you will see this is a very foggy area indeed. Consider this argument posted on the Do-Op (Difference of Opinion) site.
“This is a new era of communication. A 2018 survey showed that teenagers prefer conversing via social media platforms over talking on the phone at a rate of 3 to 1. Over 69% of American adults have social media accounts, and nearly all who do use it as a source of news. Social media is no longer a game played by a small niche of people; it is a primary form of communication.
However, social media differs from the rest of the above mentioned methods in a particularly crucial way. Twitter and Facebook users are subject to the whims of the companies’ employees who may censor any post or poster they choose.
If someone at Twitter disagrees with journalist Meghan Murphy’s statement that “men aren’t women,” they delete her account. If someone at Facebook feels that an excerpt from America’s Declaration of Independence constitutes hate speech, then they will delete that as well.
Instead of being the hubs of free speech that they should have been, social media companies have chosen to monitor, police, and censor their sites in a way that would be considered unthinkable for any other method of communication. Can you imagine being told that you could no longer make a call because the phone company disagreed with your politics?
This is the reality of social media. By selectively censoring and banning people from their sites, they have assumed control over a prominent means of modern communication. They have declared ownership of their customers’ words. And by doing so, they have also assumed the blame for each and every awful word spoken by their users.”
Thus far in America, social media companies have been shielded against repercussions for content posted on their sites by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects “interactive computer service(s)” from being treated as publishers, based on Congress’s initial findings that “the Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.”
In Europe in 2016, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (Google), and Microsoft signed a code of conduct with the EU requiring them to remove all instances of “hate speech” within 24 hours of their being reported. The EU was unsatisfied with the results, and so in 2017, they drew up a plan to force them to do this under penalty of law. Germany – home of VW (see above) jumped at the chance to get on board, imposing a fine of up to 50 million euro to transgressors. Virtue signalling or Teutonic totalitarianism?
To allow such a significant aspect of modern communication to be monitored and censored by a handful of CEOs is to once again relegate significance to the “elite.”
It is to create the kind of ideological echo chamber that free speech laws were specifically designed to prevent. Controversial opinions cannot be relegated to those in power, as great ideas most certainly are not. But these ideas will never be heard without free platforms to elevate those that hold them.
Some will speak falsehoods. Some will speak hate. Some will even speak “violence.” But the dangers of free speech are greatly outweighed by the consequences of censorship. There is no such thing as an “objective” censor; it is too difficult for any person or group to escape their own biases enough to discern between an opinion that is “wrong” and one that is simply “different.”
Social media companies are, or should be, the platform on which the average citizen stands. It’s time for them to start acting the part.
All censorship, by its very nature is subjective and here’s the other side of this coin. Should Coca Cola or VW control the thoughts and opinions of those who drink their sodas or drive their cars? And if they could, would that be a world you really want to inhabit?
The great Thomas Edison, who logged a total of 1093 patents singly or jointly in his 84-year lifespan and who was the driving force behind a whole host of innovations which included the incandescent light bulb, once said, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” At the onset of the still-in-force NDP 11, which runs from April 2017 to March 2023, government hived off P2.25 billion (a move engendered by the irregular, if not corrupt, depletion of the National Petroleum Fund) from the BPC subsidy budget pertaining to that time horizon and re-oriented it toward the development of the bulk petroleum product storage terminal at Tshele Hills near Rasesa village in Kgatleng District.
Both the two contenders for the Egyptian throne, General Atiku, had made their case and it was now up to the Wise Men to pass a vote indicating whose deposition had convinced them.
To Ramesses’ surprise, General, the Wise Men all voted for Moses. The vote was indicated by bowing their knees in front of Moses, thus confirming that he had a superior claim to the throne. Sadly, Ramesses was not having any of that. He immediately put his army on the alert and when word seeped through that Moses was to be the new Pharaoh, Zaru erupted into jubilation on the streets.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was first detected in Botswana in 1985. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was detected in 2020. Both viruses were new, and it was their global occurrence that led to their classification as pandemics.
They have both been traced to animals, something not surprising as most new viruses are actually cross-overs from animals. A virus crosses species, in this case to humans, and its subsequent behaviour depends on how it adapts to the new species. Many are “dead-ends”, the virus cannot multiply or be transmitted between members of the new species.
In the case of the two which are our subject in this paper, the viruses adapted to the new species (human) and underwent mutations that allowed them to be easily transmitted between humans, hence the rapid spread.
The two viruses, HIV and the Covid-19 virus are very different, hence their mode of spread is different and their mechanisms of disease causation and epidemiology are very different. The approach to their control is of necessity very different. To illustrate their difference, HIV is transmitted mainly by sexual intercourse, Covid-19 virus mainly by the droplet method through the respiratory tract.
HIV causes ill health a long time after infection, which can run from about two years to many years (incubation period); the incubation period of Covid-19 is a few days, estimated at between 10 and 14 days. HIV infection leads to the destruction of the immune system, and when the victim gets ill, it can be from any of a wide variety of diseases caused by “opportunistic infections or even cancers”, hence the name Acquired Human Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Covid-19 on the other hand presents generally as an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) although there are some presenting differently, especially with lower respiratory infection (lungs affected) in the more severe cases. Another but very important difference is that, while Covid-19 is generally an acute, self-limiting illness, with most patients recovering fully within a few weeks, and in fact many showing no symptoms, HIV/AIDS is a chronic condition; once the patient starts signs and symptoms, usually years after infection, this leads invariably to death from one of the opportunistic infections or diseases.
This last scenario used to be the case in the first decades of HIV/AIDS, but has fortunately changed after the development of drugs that in combination are referred to as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART, now known as ART).
HIV/AIDS is now treatable and no longer a death sentence, although treatment lasts for life as the drugs do not eliminate the virus from the body but suppress it. As for Covid-19, there is currently, as is the case generally with viral infections, no effective antibiotic or antiviral drug that kills the virus or eliminates it from the body.
Where does this put us? We are essentially dealing with two diseases or pandemics that are very different from each other. I did my post-graduate studies in Public Health during the last years of smallpox eradication, actually I finished the studies in 1978, the year Smallpox eradication was certified in Botswana.
What used to be emphasized, why the world succeeded in eradicating Smallpox was that it had epidemiological characteristics that supported eradication: it was easy to diagnose, even by lay people; it had a consistent incubation period of about 10 days; it virtually had a 100% manifestation rate (everybody infected showed typical signs and symptoms); there was a vaccine against it that was virtually 100% effective. Unfortunately, there have been few diseases with such favourable characteristics for eradication. Hence the next disease targeted for eradication, Polio, is almost done but still causing some problems.
Response to the HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics in Botswana
When HIV was detected in Botswana in 1985, the world had been aware of the existence of AIDS for about five years, that is, since the outbreaks among gays in America in 1981. By 1985 the virus had been identified but little was known about it; it was still a subject of intense research. However we knew that it caused AIDS and was no longer just transmitted in gay sex, but that most transmission in Africa was through heterosexual sex, and that sexual transmission was responsible for more than 90% of transmission occurring in Africa.
Some African countries were already experiencing severe HIV/AIDS epidemics, especially in Central and East Africa. In some of them (Uganda is sometimes quoted) people started dying in large numbers before the cause was known, only for people to move to neighbouring villages and infect others there!
The Botswana HIV epidemic, as well as those of SACU countries generally, was later than those of Central and East Africa. The latter had already experienced high disease and mortality rates for some years. In the late 1980s, Botswana was experiencing a big economic boom, and this attracted professionals, technicians and artisans from African countries badly affected by HIV/AIDS, and this really speeded up transmission in the country.
When the first seropositive people were identified in 1985, I was Assistant Director of Health Services responsible for Primary Health Care. So, Disease Control fell in my Department, and I had the responsibility of reporting to my seniors at the Ministry and hence to the country that we now had HIV.
Control measures were started immediately, such as screening all blood donated for transfusion and putting together with the help of WHO, the first short-term control plan. A unit was created which was headed by an appropriate professional. In 1986 I became Director of Health Services and Deputy Permanent Secretary, and in January 1990 I became Permanent Secretary.
In all these positions I was intimately involved in HIV/AIDS control, working intimately with those directly responsible for the unit/programme, and also doing at least one assignment with Global Programme on AIDS (GPA) when it was still with WHO before UNAIDS was created to share the AIDS programme with other UN Agencies. In the same manner, here at home we started pushing for the multisectoral approach to HIV/AIDS control in the early 1990s, that resulted in the formation of the National AIDS Council and eventually NACA.
The Ministry of Health undertook a very intensive public education from early in the HIV epidemic. The Ministry warned the people of Botswana (through and including the political, traditional and community leaders) about what was going to happen, the impending doom of high morbidity and mortality. What was needed was change is sexual behaviour.
Everyone knows that the main message from the Ministry was “ABC” (abstain, be faithful, condomise), which had become a universal message especially in Africa was used by the Ministry. Put in other words, the message aimed at three things; i) delaying sexual debut, ii) avoiding multiple concurrent partners and iii) consistent condom use.
This message never made an impact on the Botswana population, so when the clinical cases started hitting the country after the several years of silent spread (the silent phase of HIV spread), the effect was disaster. We had a nasty surprise in the health system that while the countries in central Africa that had early HIV/AIDS epidemics had their HIV prevalence plateauing at 15% and we thought the same would happen here, in Botswana and Southern Africa prevalence rates went past 30%.
This was due partly to the sexual practices of our people but also to the HIV sub-type that was prevalent in our part of the world. By 1966 Botswana was declared as having the highest prevalence of HIV in the world.
The real heavy load of cases in Botswana started in the mid-1990s, and everybody remembers it; funerals and funerals and funerals. That time ARVs were still under development, and it was only at the end of the 1990s that they became available but very expensive, so most poor and middle income countries could not immediately afford them.
Thanks to India, Thailand and Brazil who broke the patents and manufactured the drugs, their availability to many developing countries would have taken a long time. Here in Botswana, it was due to the initiative of the then President that HAART became available for general use in Government facilities in 2002, with massive aid from PEPFAR and ACHAP (supplied by Merck Foundation and the Bill and Gates Foundation).
Otherwise there was talk of extinction, and the expected population pyramid produced by UNAIDS was frightening. Luckily because of ARV’s that scenario did not occur. The rest of Botswana’s HIV/AIDS trajectory up to now is history. I left Government service on 31st December 1996 after seven years as P.S. and joined WHO.
I had almost joined WHO in 1989 but deferred it when I was appointed PS and did not want to appear unpatriotic and disappoint President Masire and PSP Legwaila with both of whom I had very excellent relations. My initial job with WHO was in Tuberculosis, a disease that had been my passion since I did Public Health and took over its control as head of disease control in 1979.
No matter what post I held in the Ministry thereafter, I participated directly in Tuberculosis control. And as we all know. Tuberculosis became and is still one of the manifestations of HIV globally and in Botswana.
HIV/AIDS was and is a slow epidemic. So, the public did not really perceive it as a threat in Botswana, except perhaps in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it caused very high mortality in the country. The Covid-19 epidemic/pandemic is different. Although it doesn’t kill everybody who gets it like HIV-related disease did, we have seen in highly affected countries that the 2-5% it kills translate to large numbers, because this is an acute infection that spreads very quickly. So, it should be easy for the public to perceive its danger.
The surveillance and containment that has been employed so far in Botswana to control the spread of Covid-19 has been very effective. Those responsible, the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Task Force deserve to be acknowledged and thanked for a job well done. I am confident that the health care system can also adjust itself and not be disrupted by this new threat.
Since the chances of developing a drug against such a virus seems a bit remote, we are all putting our hope on a vaccine. Many viral diseases have very effective vaccines, so this keeps our hope up. We also need to know if one attack of this disease results in life-long immunity (like measles, mumps, chicken pox etc.) or if one can be attacked more than once, implying that the virus keeps mutating and bringing up new sub-types.
We are still to see if the public will do better than they did with HIV/AIDS and follow the health education. Experience is what usually persuades people to change; that is why many believe the celebrated change in Uganda when people changed and HIV infections dropped was due to the large mortality they had experienced before they even knew what was killing them.
Regarding Covid-19, we are seeing in a number of badly affected countries, people ignoring or resisting social distancing measures and masks, sometimes encouraged by politicians! Here in Botswana we have not yet experienced large losses of lives from Covid-19, so it is still to be seen how the public will really conform to advice, especially on social distancing and other measures like masks and hand washing.
What one sees so far is not very encouraging -in combis, bars etc., and during weekends in homes. In health we talk of KAP (Knowledge, Attitude, Practice). We know that K does not always lead to change in A, and to P. We saw this plainly in HIV/AIDS, what is going to happen in Covid-19?