Tech giant shows accountability of markets

Facebook has to be one of the biggest of “big business” players out there and has certainly had it’s fair share of scrutiny from social campaigners, in particular, from privacy campaigners. The privacy issue is one where an instinctive mistrust of powerful entities seems to drive large sections of the population to paranoia. What these campaigners often forget though is that nobody is forced into dealing with these firms and that there are other choices to choose. This competitive pressure is a powerful way for customers to keep firms accountable and ensure services are run as they prefer. This is a distinct advantage that the free-market has over planned and mixed economies where state-backed monopolies insulate service providers from this source of pressure.

© Marco Pako

© Marco Pako

Facebook’s latest brush with social campaigners was with a crowd of feminist activists who grew concerned about mysoginistic content hosted on Facebook’s social platform. The content, of course, was not Facebook’s creation but was there on account of Facebook’s self-service approach to content sharing, yet it did not seem to suit Facebook’s interests for it to be there. I’ve looked at some examples, and frankly I agree. When the content was brought to the attention of advertising managers at several major brands the brands decided it wasn’t in their interests either. The FT explains what happened (registration required):

The placement of brands’ adverts next to the offensive content reflects targeted advertising techniques that follow users rather than individual pages. These techniques identify individuals who are likely to buy a particular product and then automatically places ads for that product on whatever page he or she visits.

Adverts for Nissan, Nationwide, Unilever’s Dove skincare brand, were automatically placed next to the offensive images that Facebook users either sought out or stumbled upon accidentally. To the companies’ embarrassment, screenshots juxtaposing the misogynistic images with their products were then widely circulated.

Nationwide said earlier this week that it had pulled its Facebook adverts pending resolution of the situation. Dove said it was working with Facebook to have the offensive content removed and “refine our [ad] targeting terms in case any further pages like these are created”. Both companies said they had not been aware that their ads had been placed on the pages in question.

Say what you like about radical feminism, but this is a handy example of how free-markets, freedom of (dis)association, and naked self-interest have combined to resolve a genuine problem non-violently, and without imposing any central diktats or uniform ideas of what is acceptable in the culture. The only thing that changed is what is acceptable on one platform, and consumers are free to visit a different one. In this case, heterogeneity preserved what is valued generally – freedom of speech – and discouraged that which is generally held to be abhorrent.

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