Facebook and Political Speech

By Ken Shotts, Sheila Melvin
2022 | Case No. ETH34 | Length 16 pgs.

By 2022, Meta was the world’s largest social media company, with around 3 billion users sharing 140 billion messages and a billion stories a day. Over 200 million businesses used Meta apps like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Meta’s primary source of revenue was advertising. Its proclaimed mission was to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” and its principles were to “give people a voice; build connection and community; serve everyone; keep people safe and protect privacy; promote economic opportunity.”

Facebook, which was Meta’s original platform and, from 2004 to 2021, the source of the company’s name, had 1.97 billion daily users around the world. More than 80 percent of adult social media users in the United States reported visiting Facebook at least once a week in 2022, and the platform’s global penetration was nearly 40 percent. This case focuses specifically on the use of Facebook for political speech in the United States and around the world. It covers the advent of Facebook as a political tool; the “Facebook era” in American presidential elections, including charges of Russian interference, “fake news” and disinformation, and targeted advertising; allegations of unfair censorship and double standards; the 2021 “whistleblower,” Frances Haugen; and the Facebook response to all these issues. The case also considers the role of Facebook in the Myanmar genocide and the Polish political landscape.

Learning Objective

The case can be used for multiple purposes.

In classes on business ethics, the case can be used to analyze the role of moral intuitions in determining how stakeholders respond to a company’s policies. It also can be used to highlight the fact that a company’s executives and employees often fail to anticipate these stakeholder reactions.

In classes on business and society, the case can be used to discuss companies’ roles and responsibilities in supporting (or at least not actively undermining) foundational societal institutions like democracy and the rule of law.

In classes on strategy beyond markets, the case can be used to analyze companies’ strategic reactions to hot button issues. These reactions can take a variety of forms, ranging from public relations and lobbying efforts to self-regulation and rethinking the company’s products and policies.

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