Batten down the hatches, America, for the latest monster has reared its ugly head, and its name is . . . Facebook.
This, at least, is the premise of a new gun-control petition, in which the entertainingly neurotic founder of Moms Demand Action, Shannon Watts, complains that “Facebook and Instagram are currently being used to facilitate sales and trades of firearms between private sellers.” In consequence, Watts and her cohorts are calling for the company to “ban gun-themed fan pages on the site,” technology website VentureBeat confirmed yesterday. Thus far, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a few drearily predictable celebrities, and nearly 100,000 Americans have added their names to the supplication.
In her entreaty, Watts gripes that Facebook’s “platforms unfortunately allow users to buy, sell, and trade firearms without requiring criminal background checks.” This, she suggests, is “a threat to public safety and the security of our families.” In fact, the “platforms” “allow” no such thing. As a spokesman for Facebook noted with barely disguised irritation, “you can’t buy things on Instagram and Facebook, nor can you promote the sale or use of weapons in advertising.” What he presumably didn’t feel he needed to clarify is that what the two “platforms” do facilitate is people talking to one another — a service, it should be remembered, that is provided by almost every interactive system on the Internet, including e-mail, instant- and text-messaging services, photo-sharing venues, blogging hosts, comments sections, and forums.
VentureBeat explained the rationale behind the proposed bans:
Federal law enforcement sources . . . view Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms “as emerging threats for unlawful gun transactions in the United States.”
Undoubtedly so. After all, the Internet presents a genuine and welcome challenge to centralized authority, and the state has not yet managed to quell the unruly hordes. And do Facebook and Instagram contribute to this headache? Yes, of course. Nevertheless, one still has to establish what makes those services especially dangerous, and, more pressingly perhaps, what exactly criminal behavior has to do with “gun-themed fan pages”? Indeed, if we are to believe that celebrations of legal activity must eventually lead to off-stage violations of the rules, then we must be brutally consistent: Should Facebook remove all of its muscle-car pages in case users who become overexcited by discussions of speed get together to drive too fast or tear up the roads without a license? Are ardent fans of popular entertainers to have their pages shuttered lest they start sharing copyrighted material or transferring show tickets in violation of the terms and conditions?
How about drugs? A cursory search of the directory reveals a quite remarkable number of pages — among them “Just Get High,” “D.A.R.E. (Drugs Are Recreational Enjoyment),” and “High Theaters” (not exactly subtle, guys) — and a parade of users who should possibly think more carefully about what they are announcing in public. The “High Theaters” page offers readers the chance to “learn how to grow your own killer marijuana and ditch the dealer” and advice as to how one might “learn all the tips and tricks to growing your own killer pot.” On “D.A.R.E.,” meanwhile, a man called Kendy White is openly selling weed:
i got right here Afgani Kush,Purple Haze,Sour Diesel,Purple Kush..White Widow….. if you are in the USA or Canada We Have supplied within the USA ,Europe and Canada and Australia for quick response . We do Overnight shipping and very discrete. Contact for more information We have high quality medicinal marijuana and other best strains of kush for sale at moderate prices.
White invites users to “send us a friend request to //kendy white /// for more information,” and lists no fewer than 35 different sorts of marijuana for sale, each with a sky-high price in tow. A disclaimer at the bottom ensures readers that
this is a legal advertisement for Medicinal Marijuana in compliance with Federal Law H&S 11362.5,” and, too, that “Any donations requested are ONLY compensation for time, nutrients, electricity costs and other factors involved in the process of producing and delivering medical grade marijuana.
I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions about Mr. White’s business model. Perhaps he is on the level; perhaps he is not. (Certainly there is something amusing about someone claiming to sell strictly “medical” marijuana on a page celebrating the recreational use of drugs.) Either way, I am much more interested in the question of what Facebook should do about all of this. I daresay that if we were to apply the Shannon Watts principle, the mere existence of a post such as Mr. White’s would be sufficient for Facebook to remove the thread, outlaw the page on which it is displayed, and close down all other pages that have to do with the topic of drugs. Thus users who would never so much as contemplate using the site to buy or sell anything would find themselves lumped in with those who were abusing the system. Their advocacy would be quieted. Their conversations would be silenced. Their contribution to civil society would be curtailed. Is this a reasonable response?
Even if it is, it remains unclear exactly how Facebook could prevent users from talking to one another about firearms or drugs. Suppose the company removed all existing gun- or drug-specific pages and updated its rules to prohibit the addition of any others. Is it also going to start filtering messages, comments, and discussions for the word “gun” or “drug” or “sale”? Is it going to block any photographs containing firearms or joints on the off chance that a conversation about a transaction breaks out in the comments? What about news? I write frequently about both topics. Should Facebook remove my shared articles from the site in case my readers cannot contain themselves?
One suspects that, in her heart of hearts, Shannon Watts has an ugly answer to that question. And herein lies the problem: What Moms Demand Action and their authoritarian friends are really trying to do is drive gun culture underground: away from polite society; away from lightly regulated and difficult-to-control social media; away from the mainstream and the traditional. They would herd it into a faraway place where it can be more easily denigrated and where its adherents can be more efficiently marginalized. Which is to say that the pressure Watts and company are exerting on Facebook isn’t about “safety” or “common sense” or “helping the children” so much as it is about ostracism. Watts knows full well that Americans are less responsive to her propaganda than they are to the vital philosophy that lies behind the Second Amendment. She know that many Americans have taken note of the reams of literature documenting that crime rates have fallen at the same time gun laws have loosened. She knows that the Internet is not her friend. She knows that, on the question of gun control at least, the little platoons have beaten the centralizers for years now.
If she has done her homework, she will know, too, that most Americans recognize gun owners to be their friends, family, and neighbors; that the NRA is more popular than the president; and that if she is to have a snowball’s chance in hell, she has to drive the movement out of the mainstream. Where better to start than the world’s most popular network?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.