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.
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.
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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