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Why we protested Meta at Netroots | Q&A with Brittany Williams of the Facebook Users Union

We spoke with Brittany Williams of the Facebook Users Union about her experience helping organize a sit-in protest of Meta’s booth at Netroots Nation this past weekend.

Kenya Juarez

Accountable Tech hosted a panel this past week at Netroots Nation on “Big Tech’s Threat to Democracy: The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media.” The panel explored the challenges facing activists using Big Tech platforms to organize and expand our democracy, while the same platforms spread the disinformation, hate, and extremism that are endangering our democracy.

The panel featured our Director of Policy and Partnerships Kaili Lambe, Brittany Williams of the Facebook Users Union, Rafael Shimunov of the Athena Coalition, Rose Lang-Maso of Free Press, and Sofia Ongele of Gen-Z for Change. After the panel, several of our panelists including Raf, Rose, and Brittany took their powerful words and messages from our panel and turned them into action—creatively staging a sit-in protest at Meta’s booth at Netroots Nation.

We spoke with Brittany Williams about more of her experience helping organize this protest.

Can you tell us what inspired you and the Facebook Users Union to take action and protest Meta’s booth at Netroots Nation?

I was invited to participate in the “Big Tech’s Threat to Democracy: The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” panel. Kaili and other panelists were very thoughtful and brilliant as we were chatting during our planning meeting, and this was the sort of cutting-edge discussion I expected from a place with Netroots progressive branding. 

But when I arrived at Netroots the first booth I saw in the “Town Square” was Meta and their sign about serving their “fancy” coffee. Instantly, I went into organizing mode. As the Organizing Director of Facebook Users Union, I knew we had to take action and call Meta out for their harm to users and workers and I also knew we had to call Netroots in to hold fast to their values and challenge Meta’s presence and sponsorship at Netroots. 

There were so many amazing panels, training, and conversations happening at Netroots. We could not let Meta whitewash its global harm by serving us “fancy” coffee.

Describe the scene for us as you staged a sit-in protest at Meta’s booth at Netroots Nation? 

During our panel, all of us talked about the elephant in the room, Meta in town square. Shoutout to Rafael from the Athena Coalition and Rose from Free Press for supporting Facebook Users Union every step of the way. 

The next morning, we dropped a flier on the Netroots social wall for all participants and staff to see, inviting attendees to join the action. At 10:20 Rafael, Rose, and I showed up on the balcony and looked at each other like we guessed it’s on us because roughly only 7 others had joined on the balcony terrace. What started small quickly grew to the point where we had to introduce ourselves, and ground everyone. We came up with a plan and drilled it until everyone knew what we had to do. 

Then we proceeded to our route and started to chant: 

“When abortion rights are under attack, what do we do, stand up and fight back! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Facebook has got to go!”

We timed the action to catch participants as they were leaving one workshop and heading to the next. More people began to join the protest. When we entered the Town Square the entire place began to applaud and cheer us on loud and proud. Deep down it was like everyone had just been waiting for someone to say what we were all thinking.

It was like time stopped in Town Square, and the center of the space was our solidarity with users and workers in the United States and throughout the global south facing off with Meta’s rebranded harm. Their presence impacted us in real-time, as they took up space and tried to wipe their hands of blood from aiding in genocide globally, including accusations of human trafficking of workers in Kenya and becoming the abortion police right here in the US.

What message did you want to send to Meta and Netroots Nation attendees in your protest?

Our message was: As users we are powerful, these Big Tech companies like Meta depend on us to make money and without us they are nothing. 

It is time to build a movement led by everyday users without compromise. We deserve to be safe and to feel safe. We are no longer accepting corporate fascism and Big Tech companies intentionally harming us and our communities for profit. We must begin to build a movement that is reflective and connects us from user to user, worker to worker, and from continent to continent. We are worth the solidarity and worth fighting for each other.

Why do you believe companies, conventions, and philanthropic organizations should not take money from Meta?

Meta should not be comfortable or welcomed in any progressive space – PERIOD. 

Knowing that 97.9 percent of Meta’s money comes from users, and the exploitation of ads that spread hate, violence, disinformation, and misinformation and that have caused tremendous amounts of harm and death to users, workers, and communities globally, what are your company’s principles, code of ethics and values? 

I don’t think it is Facebook Users Union’s right to say if anyone should take money from Meta or not, although we believe we should not. We understand the complexity of survival, we are in the pandemic and the nonprofit industrial complex is a beast within itself. It is a struggle to keep the doors open and your organization afloat. Which is another conversation. But what we will say is, what are your values, again? We are not demonizing anyone who does but here are some questions to ask:

Is Meta’s decision to aid in genocide in the global south enough to say no? Meta’s sweatshops in Kenya enough to say no? Meta’s support of the Jan. 6th Capitol Riots enough to say no? Meta aiding in criminalizing abortion seekers enough to say no? Meta continuing to violate users’ rights and data privacy enough to say no? 

Ask if taking Meta’s money conflicts with your organization’s integrity, and again your values,  the population you claim to serve, and then make your decision. If your company is currently taking money from Meta, does accountability look like making a plan to divest from this source of funding? 

And look we get it, If you absolutely have to take Meta’s money, who are other grantees that can stand in solidarity to collectively make demands of Meta, and what is your bottom line? As a grantee how do you stand in solidarity with users and workers?  

When we take a deeper look at what Meta has done to communities across the globe, we realize this company continues to support right-wing fascism and downright violence against its users and workers. Users are people, not revenue streams. We deserve platforms that honor our human rights with dignity and full protection.

What are some of your key takeaways from the protest and Accountable Tech’s panel at Netroots Nation?

What is sitting with me are the many examples of how we innovate and use their platforms to transform our lives, build safety nets beyond borders, and imagine what else is possible. Each and every panelist was so passionate about their work. Rafael from The Athena coalition is taking on Amazon, he shared with us how Amazon treats their workers so poorly, in the future Amazon has a real concern about worker decline. Sofia from Gen-Z for Change is using platforms like TikTok to find creative ways for everyday people to take action. I’ve never heard someone speak so passionately about policy as Rose from Free Press, who was able to dive into Facebook’s new policies related to mid-term elections. Kaili, as the moderator, kept us focused and on the topic. 

The panel was AMAZING. I got to learn so much from each person on the panel. The need for tech workers and users to unite and build a mass movement was a central theme in my post-panel reflection.