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Tina Casey headshot

Next-Level Corporate Social Responsibility and the End of Gab

By Tina Casey

Last week's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue has focused attention on Gab, the extremist, alt-right social media platform favored by white nationalists, including the Pittsburgh murderer. Gab has now been practically forced offline by the tech companies that provided it with digital support. That's a significant development because it fits into an emerging next-level corporate social responsibility pattern, in which business leaders are stepping in to address issues of broad social concern when others fail to act.

The corporate actions against Gab are also significant because they put mainstream social media platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube among others -- on notice: they could be next.

Social media has a corporate social responsibility problem

Social media has been long overdue for a corporate social responsibility reckoning. The core of the problem is that popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are, well, popular. The business model is one that relies on high participation at zero cost to the user, with minimal bottom line expenses for monitoring.

Enforcing community standards on these platforms was a monumental task from the get-go, but not an impossible one. The problem is that until truly effective algorithms are developed, social media companies need to rely on hiring more human beings to make decisions about online content, and that costs money.

To justify lack of investment in human resources, social media companies have promoted the idea that online connectivity is by nature a good thing.

That's obviously not representative of the full range of online expression. It's simply a formulation of convenience, one that relieves the company from the responsibility -- and the considerable expense -- of hiring enough staff to keep online interactions on a civil and respectful level.

In real life, of course, there is nothing intrinsically good about getting people together. It simply depends on who is talking to whom, and with what motive.

Buzzfeed reporter and tech insider Ryan Broderick sums up the corporate social responsibility issue for social media companies in a nutshell:

The way the world is using their phones is almost completely dominated by a few Silicon Valley companies. The abuse that is happening is due to their inability to manage that responsibility. All of this has become so normalized in the three years since it first began to manifest that we just assume now that platforms like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter will exacerbate political and social instability. We expect they will be abused by ultranationalist trolls. We know they will be exploited by data firms. We wait for them to help launch the careers of populist leaders.

The "inability" is baked into the business model, so it's not really a lack of capability. It's a deliberate corporate social responsibility choice (or lack thereof) to not pay the army of staff that would be needed to vet and rank social media posts more effectively.

Gab as low hanging fruit

With all this in mind, let's take a look at the corporate social responsibility response to Gab. The startup was launched in 2016 and quickly gained a reputation as the "alt-right" alternative to Twitter.

As one measure of the amount of hate speech on Gab, advertisers shied away long before the latest massacre occurred, and Apple and Google Play refused to list the Gab app on their stores. Gab's initial online host was Azure, but that relationship ended after the site's anti-Semitic vitriol caught the attention of Microsoft president Brad Smith last summer.

Nevertheless, Gab stayed online -- until after the shooting. PayPal and another online payment vendor, Stripe, were both already in the process of suspending Gab before the shooting. They quickly closed Gab's accounts afterwards.

Gab’s current host, Joylent, cut Gab after providing it with a 24 hour window to find another host. The site also lost its domain on GoDaddy.

Gab has learned an important lesson: companies that provide services for online platforms are no longer willing to put their brand reputation at risk by enabling bad behavior -- or at least, not extremely bad behavior.

Social media whack-a-mole

Of course, Gab will have an afterlife, just as the influence of Breitbart and InfoWars continues to ripple out. Gab's owners and executives can still get a sympathetic hearing within the right wing television, talk radio and public appearance circuits. They will mostly continue to influence high profile Republicans -- up to and including President Trump -- who seek to build credibility with their core voters.

It's also inevitable that Gab users will continue to carry the torch through mainstream social media, including Twitter, YouTube, along with WhatsApp and Instagram, both of which are under the Facebook umbrella.

The question now is whether or not the outrage over the synagogue shooting will have any significant impact on the corporate social responsibility profile of mainstream social media platforms. These platforms have regularly taken their share of hits for enabling harmful online behavior that spills seamlessly into the real world, without making any substantial change to their business models.

That could change, now that the stakes for brand reputation are more clearly in evidence. The consumer boycott movements #grabyourwallet and Sleeping Giants have already put major brands on notice that they face significant reputational risks by associating with platforms that enable hate and violence -- and those brands are beginning to respond.

Image: "Facebook Beachfront" by mhkmarketing/Flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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