Corporate activism and the free speech paradigm


Corporations are increasingly involved in social issues and yet lack adequate regulation

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Image by Quinn Dombrowski

By Arthur Sullivan

If you’ve recently interviewed for any position, from an internship to a permanent post, you may have found yourself scrambling to engage with the idea of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) as the factors ostensibly used to determine the sustainability of today’s companies. Some aspects of ESG are more contentious, especially those concerning whether corporations should become involved in social issues, how governments regulate (or fail to regulate) this involvement, and the implications this heightened participation has for freedom of speech in the age of information?

Recent Pride celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the first London Pride march have reignited debates surrounding corporate involvement in social issues. ‘Rainbow Capitalism,’ as it has been derisively labelled, consists of brands incorporating ideograms of the LGBTQ+ movement to profit off positive associations often held with activism. Companies have been repeatedly shown only skin-deep commitment to these causes, with Disney’s recent opposition to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and cutting of scenes containing LGBTQ+ themes to please homophobic censors in China and Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, Elon Musk recently tweeted a meme depicting the onslaught of ‘pinkwashing’ by companies that purport to support the LGBTQ+ community despite making no efforts to support inclusivity in areas of the world where homophobia is prevalent. Musk’s critics have highlighted the fact that his automotive company, Tesla, has engaged in similar practices. This criticism underscores the fact that senior executives care so little about the social action of their companies, that they are willing to profit off it whilst criticising the selfsame practices. Musk has also been making headlines in the area of ESG with his proposed £35 billion takeover of Twitter, calling the company’s decision to ban former President Trump from the platform a “morally bad decision” and promising to reinstate him if the takeover is completed.

This is an especially divisive issue due to the First Amendment giving citizens near total freedom of speech. The problem is that online platforms are critical forums for public discussion, but this obviously conflicts with the right of any private organisation to have the right to make its own decisions, in Twitter’s case the banning of individual users, without interference from the state. Whilst the government cannot curtail free speech, the small number of individuals controlling highly ubiquitous social media platforms forms a functionally similar cabal capable of stymieing public discourse.

How the ever-expanding influence of these tech billionaires should be regulated is necessarily a matter which varies depending upon an individual’s position on the political spectrum. Some argue that Musk’s brand of free-speech absolutism poses more of a threat than the status quo, as it would allow misinformation, of the kind that provoked the 6 January Capitol insurrection, to spread like wildfire. That being said, allowing a publicly-traded company to freely control global discourse has the potential to be massively harmful, as demonstrated by the many atrocities resulting from corporate conflicts of interest. These effects are dramatised in the 2019 film, Dark Waters, which portrays the dumping of thousands of tons of toxic waste into local water sources by chemical company DuPont.

In light of the numerous privacy violations already uncovered at Facebook, an anarcho-capitalist vision of Huxley’s Brave New World springs to mind when considering a similarly huge disaster in the world of social media. One thing is certain: corporate regulatory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic, following Thatcher and Reagan’s vision of self-regulation, have become toothless. The EPA may have been responsible for the misconduct of DuPont, but the SEC and its UK equivalent, the FCA, are similarly weak. Musk openly declared in 2018, “I do not respect the SEC” following his being charged with securities fraud. He also asserted openly on ’60 Minutes’ that he does not comply with the SEC’s settlement agreement. Similarly, the FCA failed to prevent the failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland, meaning that the Government had to inject £45.5 billion of equity capital following the 2008 Financial Crisis.

The apparent weakness of regulators has seen numerous charges levelled against platforms like Twitter and Facebook for allowing vulnerable people to be exposed to harmful and disturbing images and posts which would not be checked. Given the vast nature of current platforms, it’s certainly incredibly difficult for regulators to strike a balance between ensuring freedom of expression, whilst at the same time protecting people from the worst of user generated content. To this end, regulators have struggled to assert themselves. However, the UK is taking decisive steps to protect people, charging platforms with a legal responsibility to protect users by removing illegal, explicit and exploitative content. The Online Safety Bill empowers the communications regulator, Ofcom, to a much greater extent. In forcing platforms to be much more proactive in protecting their users, the need for the government to intervene so decisively reflects government’s frustration at private companies to self-police. Nonetheless, the significant extension of state oversight over such firms poses obvious questions about the rightful limits and nature of state involvement in the activities of either private or public companies.

Whatever your views on how free speech and corporate responsibility as a whole should be regulated, the lesson to be learned from the past is one of scepticism. Little faith should be placed in the capacity of private companies and the wealthy individuals who control them to ‘self-regulate’, as they have repeatedly and thoroughly demonstrated that the profit motive outweighs any truly altruistic incentive. Regarding the issue of ‘pinkwashing’, there is little point in preventing companies from attempting to profit off the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, all efforts should be directed towards promoting LGBTQ+ awareness. The importance of the Stonewall riots and other protests should not be lost behind corporations’ transparent pursuit of profit.