No, Big Tech Doesn’t “Profit” From Hate Speech
Tech critics have many complaints about tech companies. They routinely complain—incorrectly—that online services are destroying democracy, undermining journalism, endangering children, and devastating the environment. But some detractors go even further. They argue that not only do these tech companies cause numerous injuries to society but they intentionally profit from them. The critics’ intent seems to be to convince the world that these alleged harms are not unintended side effects stemming from negligence and mistakes but the deliberate result of clear-eyed scoundrels choosing greed over basic human decency. However, the evidence used to justify these extraordinary claims is surprisingly thin.
Consider the latest claim from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE), a non-profit organization that recently published an article arguing that Google is “profiting from hate” because some extremist groups have run ads on its platform. What is the basis for its conclusion that “Google doesn’t care” about stopping hate speech? According to GPAHE, far-right groups in Europe spent a total of between €62,000 to €85,000 ($66,000 to $91,000) on 177 online ads over a four-year period.
First, even assuming GPAHE’s findings are accurate, the amount of money involved is trivial. Google ad revenue over these same four years was approximately $715 billion. Revenue from ads by these far-right groups accounted for 0.000013 percent of the company’s ad revenue—not even enough money to pay the salary of a single Google employee for one year. Clearly, no tech executives are getting rich off these ads.
Second, as to GPAHE’s claim that “Google pocketed” these funds, what exactly would be the better alternative? If Google returned the payment from the extremist groups, the company would be effectively providing these ads for free—a far worse outcome and one that anti-tech groups would criticize even more vehemently. As to what becomes of these funds, Google has a solid record of philanthropy, with the company and its employees having donated $2 billion in cash to charities between 2017 and 2022.
Third, it is hard to find fault with Google’s response. The company serves nearly 30 billion ads per day, so reviewing all of this content requires significant work. Yet even GPAHE admits that Google took down all of the ads in question. Indeed, the company has a solid track record in enforcing its ad policies. In 2022, it removed over 5.2 billion ads and suspended 6.7 million advertiser accounts. That is an enormous quantity of ads. By any reasonable metric, Google is taking the problem seriously.
Finally, what GPAHE fails to realize is that while many people vehemently disagree with these far-right political groups, for better or worse, they have become part of the political mainstream in Europe. For example, GPAHE criticizes Google for hosting ads by Brothers of Italy (FdI), a populist right-wing party led by Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, and National Rally (RN), a far-right party whose leader Marine Le Pen received approximately 42 percent of the vote in the 2022 French presidential election. While these platforms have every right to enforce their ad content policies—even if it involves taking down political ads that cross the line into hate speech—it is unreasonable to expect tech companies to block all ads, unilaterally and preemptively, from prominent politicians and political parties given the enormous impact this would have on free speech online.
GPAHE is not the first to make the accusation that tech companies profit from extremism, nor has Google been the only target. For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has declared that “Facebook profits off of disinformation” (ironically on her own Facebook page). These accusations about profits are ultimately lazy critiques because they ignore the fact that everyone uses these platforms. Nobody claims Nestle profits from extremism when participants at a far-right political rally buy bottled water or argues that BIC profits from political violence when protestors use its lighters to start fires. But critics lob this charge at tech platforms because it is an easy way to paint these companies as villains.
In short, the allegations of tech companies profiting from extremism lack substantial merit when examined closely.