FedEx (FDX) released a statement Monday afternoon in response to outrage over the company’s discount policy for members of the National Rifle Association. The first part of the statement forcefully endorsed gun safety advocates’ positions, and outlined a corporate policy in opposition to the NRA.
“Fedex opposes assault rifles being in the hands of civilians,” the statement read. “Most important, FedEx believes urgent action is required at the local, state, and Federal level to protect schools and students from incidents such as the horrible tragedy in Florida on February 14th.”
The company went on to stick by its NRA discount: “FedEx is a common carrier under Federal law and therefore does not and will not deny service or discriminate against any legal entity regardless of their policy positions or political views,” the company said. “FedEx has never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues.”
Statements like this used to be unusual; public companies have traditionally shied away from making decisions based on particular political viewpoints. On CNBC on Monday, Warren Buffett said, “I don’t believe in imposing my views on 370,000 employees and a million shareholders. I’m not their nanny on that.”
But experience has shown that not saying something can be just as bad at alienating a segment of your customers. In August, when Trump’s council of CEOs began to abandon ship en masse, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison wavered in her departure, trying to hedge. It backfired as Twitter filled with #boycott calls from the left, and then the right when she caved. Across the political spectrum, the soup was poisoned.
The tightrope walk of crisis management now demands quick, unequivocal statements like FedEx’s. But action is another thing, as the second half of FedEx’s missive showed.
The platform defense
FedEx’s defense that it provides an open platform, a “common carrier,” is a frequently-used tactic by large tech companies cornered by social media pressure. As a logistics company, FedEx has a legitimate claim to the would-that-we-could attitude. Like an electric company, it is obligated by law to serve customers with whom it disagrees.
(This, however, may be a strawman and unrelated to the criticism, as critics are not impugning FedEx for fulfilling its legal obligations, but rather for having a business alliance with the NRA to give members discounted shipping.)
In the social media age, this “we’re a platform” defense has become de rigueur. One time or another, Facebook, Google (YouTube, especially), and Twitter have all positioned themselves like 21st century utilities, largely “agnostic” to what goes on within its boundaries — like a smaller version of the United States’s open and democratic free speech.
For a company, having or being a “platform” is a step up from being simply a service or a website. Besides the connotations of being a tech company instead of anything else (like Facebook’s insisting it’s not a media company) it also gives a company a reason for keeping unpopular content and users on it. If it styles itself an agnostic platform, an online analog to the real world, it might avoid controversy with a “we’re just the messenger” defense.
To some, it’s a cop-out, tantamount to passing the buck, something that is tolerated far less now that business leaders are often looked to when it comes to leading social causes in the era of Trump. (Campbell’s defense — along the lines that it’s a platform for soup — did not work.)
Platforms seem open but they discriminate
But the fact is these companies frequently do discriminate and seldom offer an open platform, something that many far-right websites trumpet on a regular basis. Apple’s walled garden did not permit flash or pornography. “Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” Steve Jobs once quipped. (Android was far closer to an open platform than Apple).
The struggle Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms encounter with censorship has been exacerbated by increased polarization and the rise of video. What is allowed? Is a savage beating? A nipple? An execution? What if it’s newsworthy? Different platforms have their own rules. In a response to an InfoWars video on Tuesday, Google/YouTube wrote “YouTube is not a platform for things like predatory behavior, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, or intimidation.”
It does not take long for these choices to descend into the political, even if it’s not an instance where a company attempts to push a viewpoint. Favoring stronger censorship of nudity over violence — it’s the opposite in Europe — is a value-based political choice companies make. When Google News or social media networks’ curate trending stories and hashtags, the platforms can’t help but wading in. Visa, a payments platform, doesn’t allow bitcoin sales, but allows AR-15 sales, as many have noted.
The faceless-by-design veneer of the enormous corporate giant cracks quickly when confronted by examples of this “curation.” For better or worse, they are not inert. Though companies, as Buffett says, may not have the same views as their CEOs, leaders, and employees, they are far from apolitical. Companies spend upwards of $3.3 billion a year on lobbying through around 11,444 lobbyists to advance their political positions. Citizens United v. FEC gave companies precedent to spend as much as they wish to create messaging to support a candidate in an election.
In the end, though, it usually comes back to the bottom line. A business or platform weighing exercising its rights to refuse service is usually making a business decision, aligned to the will of its customers. And unless they are bound by law like FedEx, or by anti-discrimination laws — some states protect political views as a class — companies are malleable, even if their platform is “open.”