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Companies rush to distance themselves from President Trump – but is it too late?

Image of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC

Over the past several days we’ve seen companies scramble to distance themselves from President Trump’s incitement of a white nationalist insurrection and attack on democracy at the US Capitol, which left five people dead.

Within 24 hours, executives from companies in the automotive, banking and finance, energy, and technology sectors made statements condemning the violence as an assault on American democracy and calling for a peaceful transfer of power. Those releasing statements included entities that previously supported the President, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the US Chamber of Commerce, along with the Business Roundtable and others. Online platforms and social media companies have finally - belatedly - taken action as well.

Twitter announced a permanent ban on Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” while Facebook announced that it would block President Trump’s account “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” Reddit, Snapchat, and Twitch have either disabled his accounts or banned related communities, and Amazon, Apple, and Google have removed right-wing social media platform Parler for allegedly allowing postings that seek to incite ongoing violence. (Parler has responded by suing Amazon.)

Some have pushed back against these steps, arguing that these platforms have an obligation to accommodate this content under the guise of “free speech”. To the contrary, companies have the responsibility to take action to stop the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and violence - whether in person or online. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the global framework for addressing business impacts on human rights, assert that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. This is regardless of whether governments fulfill their own human rights obligations.

A company’s responsibility under the UNGPs applies to its business relationships and can include ending business relationships with companies not fulfilling their human rights responsibilities, as Amazon did with Parler earlier this week.

It should not take the realization they have enabled actual violence and undermined US democracy for companies to reconsider the politicians and organizations they support. Companies should proactively mitigate risks and continually reassess how their support, funding and business models impact human rights.

Civil society organizations have been sounding the alarm for years about the harm to US democracy caused by insufficient action by online platforms to combat hateful conduct. This includes groups that are part of the Change the Terms and the Stop Hate for Profit coalitions; the latter organized the largest ever advertiser walk-out from Facebook earlier this year. Ranking Digital Rights and others have also raised significant concerns about the business model of social media companies, which amplifies and targets content to keep users engaged and collect their data with the ultimate aim of maximizing profit.

Similarly, civil society has worked for years to combat the outsized influence companies have over the political process, including empowering far-right extremists both inside and outside government through campaign contributions and other shows of support.

Notwithstanding the UNGPs, there continues to be a gap between policy and practice in all sectors and a significant lack of accountability. The scale and ongoing pattern of harm we’ve seen related to online platforms, including the use of Facebook to incite offline violence in Myanmar and to influence voting in the 2016 US presidential election, shows why voluntary norms are insufficient.

Legally binding regulation is vital, including efforts to enact human rights due diligence legislation, such as the ongoing process in the European Union. In the US, there is an opportunity with the Biden Administration to push for legislation requiring companies to engage in human rights due diligence and include both liability and access to adequate remedy for those harmed. One approach supported by numerous advocates is a “human rights version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”.

Companies in other sectors can also do more. This week the PGA announced it would no longer hold its 2022 championship at a Trump Organization golf course. Other companies can withdraw or refuse to hold events in locations where elected officials support the violent extremism that led to last week’s violence. They can cease campaign donations to those officials, as Airbnb, AT&T, Dow, Marriott International, and Morgan Stanley have, ask for past donations to be returned, and redirect those campaign contributions to organizations working to advance human rights.

And rather than simply pay lip service to addressing racism, all companies should reflect on how they contribute to anti-Blackness and racism, carry out civil rights audits, and use their voice, leverage, and resources to advance racial justice and dismantle white supremacy inside their workforces, supply chains, and wider society.

Over the past four years, many in the private sector have ignored, enabled, or actively supported President Trump and his administration’s threats to democracy and human rights. Some are only now stepping away, such as Deutsche Bank. It’s high time for companies in the US to make their responsibility to respect human rights a top priority and recognize that they too benefit from respect for civic freedoms and democratic governance. It’s not enough to act only when these rights are fundamentally threatened, or when they are publicly shamed. It’s also time for us to hold companies that don’t fulfill their human rights responsibilities accountable.

Christen Dobson is Senior Project Lead & Researcher at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre