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Has Facebook Censorship Gone Too Far?

by David Badash on November 7, 2011

in Civil Rights,Media,News,Politics

Post image for Has Facebook Censorship Gone Too Far?

When the town square is the rectangle of your laptop or smartphone, and the local sheriff is an algorithm trademarked by an unregulated and unabashed Mark Zuckerberg & Co., there’s no doubt trouble ahead for people who “like” free speech.

Facebook is censoring the news. While Facebook, a privately owned company, has every legal right — technically — to choose to publish or not publish anything it wants to, it has a moral obligation as the largest provider of the 21st century public square to not censor. Yet what it chooses to censor and to not censor apparently is subject to some deeply held secretive algorithm, has zero explainable reason, and has the chilling effect of creating an Orwellian state — none of which today’s society, enmeshed in an Arab Spring, an Occupy Wall Street Movement, and an upcoming 2012 U.S. election cycle, can afford.

Two personal examples.

On October 15, I attempted to share a link to a piece I had written about the Occupy Wall Street Movement — on Occupy Wall Street Movement Facebook pages, like Occupy Seattle, Occupy Miami, Occupy San Francisco. The piece, “Occupy Times Square: Over 10,000 Peaceful Protestors, So NYPD Arrests Dozens,” was less than flattering of the New York City Police Department’s treatment of Occupy Wall Street protestors — 10,000 that day had crowded Times Square — dozens of which the NYPD decided to arrest. I was there, camera in hand, reporting, and had raced home to edit my video and photos and to file several reports.

October 15 notice from Facebook

With no warning, and for no discernible reason, after posting a link to the piece on a very few “Occupy” sites (perhaps three?), I received a notice (image, right) from Facebook that claimed I was posting “spam and irrelevant content on Facebook pages.” The notice also came with the note that my account was being disable for fifteen days from posting any content on pages that were not mine.

In other words, Facebook had “decided” that the content I was sharing wasn’t content, that it was “spam,” or “irrelevant,” despite the very clear fact that it was neither.

Facebook offered no opportunity to challenge its decision, no option to protest, no option to appeal. Almost as bad, Facebook did not offer a credible reason as to why it deemed original news information as spam and irrelevant. And quite frankly, censoring a report of questionable police actions is a chilling notion.

But I decided, (and in hind site, not the best decision, and certainly uncharacteristic!) my time was better spent focusing on what I could control, rather than railing against Mark Zuckerberg’s Bloomberg-beholden behemoth, so I waited the fifteen days, which, as an aside, strongly impacted my ability to disseminate news.

(For those interested, this is my Facebook account, and this is the Facebook site for The New Civil Rights Movement. Rarely do I post anything personal to either. Feel free to rifle through them — or to follow/like/subscribe to them. You’ll find neither spam nor “irrelevant” content.)

Traffic at The New Civil Rights Movement suffered, though, fortunately, not immensely, as we essentially begged our 11,000 Facebook fans, my personal 1000+ Facebook friends, and our 23,000 Twitter followers to take up the slack. (Approximately 18%, annually, of traffic to the site comes via Facebook, just behind Google News, and ay in front of traffic from Twitter.) But our ability to touch, directly, those most-interested in the Occupy Wall Street Movement news was impacted greatly. Would traffic — and thus, dissemination of relevant news — have been higher, had Facebook’s draconian censorship not taken place? I have to believe, yes.

That was example number one.

Example number two occurred Sunday.

Facebook Blocked Content Notice from November 6

After editing our “Week In Review” segment, I attempted to share it on Facebook on my personal page. I received an even more draconian censorship notice: “Warning: This message contains blocked content. Some content in this message has been reported as abusive by Facebook users.” My first thought was, “that’s odd,” as this is an original post and was just published a few seconds prior. My second thought was, OK, that’s their problem, and I’ll take the heat if a Facebook user wants to report my site’s content as “abusive.” So I tried to post it again.

The post was not only tagged as “abusive,” but Facebook would not allow me to post it to my own page, anyway!

The title of the article was, ironically, “Week In Review: A Zygote Is A Person?, Eurozone Greek Crisis, NJ Gay Marriage, Internet Freedom.”

What could be considered so “abusive” in a weekly news review? Was it the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations story? Was it the NJ gay marriage story? Was it the Internet freedom story? Was it the Mississippi personhood bill story?

News, by its very nature, is often uncomfortable. The New Civil Rights Movement works very hard every day to present information respectfully and in an intelligent context. The dozens of journalists, bloggers, other news sites that link regularly to our content don’t see it as “abusive,” so who is some algorithm at Facebook to deem it so — and to take the extraordinary measures of banning its publication?

Facebook, and other social media sites, such as Twitter, and Google +, or Reddit, Digg, and other news dissemination networks, have a moral obligation to not censor content — especially content that is not by any means hate speech. When news is censored by the largest content distribution vehicle on the planet, the world has indeed become a very scary place. Who know what — or who — will be next?

Ironically, last year ago I wrote several stories attempting to get Facebook to shut down sites that actually were abusive. Anti-gay hate speech Facebook groups and Facebook pages — that in any other country would be banned and their authors sent to jail — had been allowed to stay, unaddressed, for months.

We were successful in getting Facebook to shutter groups/pages like, “Kill All Gays,” “I HATE GAYS,” “STOP AIDS!!!!! KILL GAYS AN NIGGERS!!!!!!!!!,” “GAY ? news flash : we fuckin’ hate you !!,” and, “join if you hate homosexuals,” for example.

Can the distinction be made between a journalist posting a link to original content — news about NYPD crackdown on lawful protestors or a basic news story — and a hate group? Using a test many courts of law embrace — the “reasonable person test,” I would have to say, yes. Wouldn’t you?

So, why does Facebook, which boasts more than 800 million active users — almost three times the number of U.S. residents — feel it has not only the right but the obligation to spuriously ban some content that is far from “abusive,” and ban users who are posting original news items, and for weeks?

Facebook’s censoring arm has gone much too far. When the town square is the rectangle of your laptop or smartphone, and the local sheriff is an algorithm trademarked by an unregulated and unabashed Mark Zuckerberg & Co., there’s no doubt trouble ahead for people who “like” free speech.

Editor’s note: Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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BearFlagCitizen November 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

You are right. They are a private entity and do not have to give you notice for any reason why content is blocked or why your account access is blocked. I had the same exact thing happen to me while using online services provided by a certain software maker from Redmond and it took pulling teeth to get some kind of explanation.

What it eventually boiled down to was that I pissed off a 'softie for criticizing his opinion on the "Proper" use of Twitter, and thus using his position of authority, to repeatedly report me for violating TOS which resulted in my Windows Live account being shut down on numerous occasions for each report of violation of TOS whether founded or not. No, there is no avenue for recourse either. They do not tell you what the violating content is, they do not allow you time or access to review and or remove said content. The object is to get rid of you. So I left. I stopped using any service provided by said software maker and I won't even use their software if I can at all avoid it.

It's a decision you will have to make. To either blindly figure out what Facebook's TOS is, and if/how your content violates their TOS, or simply cut them out altogether. Understandably because of Facebook's broad reach this is a difficult decision. Take heart though, like MySpace and Friendster before it, Facebook will decline when the next-big-thing comes along. 'Tis much better to have a stronger, more free presence of your own on the web than rely on a network who's shelf life is dated.

grumpy_bozo November 7, 2011 at 9:52 pm

This is a battle which is so far past lost that seems naive to be bringing it up now. The choice for there to be no public spaces (in a free speech sense) on the US Internet was made explicitly in the early 90's and there's no chance of reversing that as long as the US has a business-owned government. Back then the idea of "my server=my rules" was appealing to a lot of naively libertarian people involved with the net who never really imagined that one corporate entity could become so dominant that their arbitrary and unappealable content decisions would have the de facto effects equivalent to an actual government's censorship. Get on the bad side of Facebook and Twitter, and you might as well not exist.

You won't fix this by preaching moral responsibility to Facebook. Zuckerberg is a man who has demonstrated (and practically stated outright) that he has no concept of moral responsibility. Facebook as an entity will always try to chase the financial bottom line, because that's what corporations are designed to do. The highest moral good of any corporation is profit. If you want FB to publish your content, you have to keep it innocuous and inoffensive or make it profitable for them to carry despite the risk of having it offend others. If what you want to post on Facebook means they spend time dealing with complaints about it that outweighs the revenue from the ads people are given along with it, you can bet on it getting whacked. FB is not in the business of serving users, they are in the business of selling users' eyeballs to advertisers.

Freedom of the press has always been the prerogative of the people who own presses. Freedom of speech doesn't oblige anyone to listen or help you get others to listen. Once in a while, laws get passed that try to expand those freedoms slightly, like the old "Fairness Doctrine" in broadcasting and the various local and public access rules in many cable TV franchises. No one has ever tried such things for the Internet, at least not in the US.

Bro. Steve Winter March 3, 2012 at 12:24 am

Please help spread the word about Facebook censorship and harassment.
Update 3-2-2012 Facebook has falsely labeled me as a spammer and blocked my from posting to pages even knowing that I am the victim of campaigns of frivolous complaints and harassment. I am convinced that nothing short of lawsuits and/or a mass exodus from Facebook will clean up their mess. Please spread the word about

winterband August 20, 2012 at 10:39 pm

8-20-2012 The scum running Facebook have really hit a new low, even for them, in both maliciousness and incompetence. The screenshots documenting this recent series of events are at It really will take a class action lawsuit to get them cleaned up.

Hizzz Odor May 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

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