The Power Of Facebook Necessitates A Reconsideration Of First Amendment Rights In The Digital Age

The First Amendment, written in a previous century to protect the freedom of expression of Americans, is under a new challenge in the digital age which the Founding Fathers could not have imagined. Increasingly communication is done online rather than in newspapers or shouting from the town square. The internet can increase opportunities for free expression when anyone can write from their own web page, but increasingly communication is being channeled through limited sources. Facebook has become indispensable for communicating, now with over two billion active users worldwide.

Unfortunately First Amendment rights to not apply on Facebook, and Facebook is showing an irresponsible disregard for freedom of expression among its users. This is seen both in intentional censorship and when people are prevented from communicating due to poorly conceived policies and faulty algorithms.

I previously discussed Facebook censorship in this post in October. Examples included a political candidate who was prohibited from posting on his own campaign page.

Censorship is not limited to politics. A healthcare blog, The Doctor Weighs In, has discussed absurd Facebook policies which restricted them.  Facebook called  picture of a child receiving a vaccination “shocking, sensational, or overly violent.” A post on burning fat was rejected because some might find it degrading.

The Intercept describes today how Facebook is deleting accounts at the direction of the United States and Israeli governments. The New York Times provided additional examples of similar Facebook censorship two days ago.  Journalists have often been caught up in Facebook censorship, such as in this example of a Pulitzer-winning reporter described by The Guardian. Forbes noted:

Indeed, journalists themselves have frequently served as a check on Facebook’s power of censorship. Time and again, Facebook has deleted a post or suspended a user who tries in vain to get their post or account restored for days or weeks to no avail, only to have the post/account instantly restored the moment a major news outlet contacts the company for comment. If journalism itself was subject to the same power of censorship and Facebook could simply delete, prohibit or deemphasize posts about its censorship activities, it could very rapidly eliminate one of the few avenues of redress for its actions.

Unfortunately most of us do not have the ability to force Facebook to review its actions as major news outlets do. Individuals on Facebook can have posts blocked, and be placed in “Facebook Jail” and be unable to post for variable lengths of time. While sometimes there might be actual violations of their “Community Standards,” quite often that is not the case. Posts might be picked up as “spam” by their faulty algorithms, or due to politically-motivated complaints from people who disagree with them.

Last week this blog post was blocked by Facebook. While some might disagree, I bet nobody can find anything actually offensive in it. I appealed, saying it is not spam but only received a response saying, “We’ll try to take another look to check if it goes against our Community Standards and send you a message here in your Support Inbox if we have an update.” A week has passed with no further response. It doesn’t necessarily help if they do review a post. Earlier in December I was placed in “Facebook Jail” for a post which they initially said was spam. After I responded that it was not spam I got this response:

Thanks again for letting us know about this post. We took another look and found it doesn’t go against our Community Standards, so we’ve restored your post. We’re sorry for the trouble and appreciate you taking the time to get in touch with us so that we could correct this.

They technically restored the post, but despite agreeing that the post was not spam they left me in Facebook Jail which mean that I still could not post in groups for a few more days, and the post they restored could not actually be seen.

Facebook is increasingly being used for political organization, but its censorship could interfere with protests. Today those who question aspects of “Russiagate” are often censored. Would Facebook have also censored those of us in 2003 who were questioning the government’s claims about WMD in Iraq? Would Facebook have suppressed discussion of the Pentagon Papers and other protests about the Vietnam war? They previously censored the iconic picture of a 9-year-old girl fleeing napalm bombs in 1972. Conservatives also complain that their views are being censored by Facebook. Facebook should not be deciding what views can be expressed from either the left or the right.

While preparing this post I found the above examples of censorship by Facebook and other social media sites, along with many more. I also found this Online Censorship organization which is seeking examples of censorship. Hopefully online organizations can be pressured into being more accountable towards their users and to show greater respect for freedom of expression.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Ellen says:

    Hi-My account was permanently disabled because I posted a photo of a Kurdish political prisoner. All my Kurdish activist friends have had accounts shut down. I think Facebook relies on Turkish translators to determine what's offensive and they consider criticism of the Turkish authoritarian government offensive

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Sadly it does appear that there are certain causes or people who are greater targets of Facebook censorship.

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