One might have thought that the recent allegations by former employees that Facebook was manipulating its trending-topics feed to suppress news stories that appeal to conservatives would make the social-media behemoth tread more carefully. Apparently, though, it did not learn a lesson from the ensuing fallout. Facebook is now censoring science pages, journalists, and groups seeking social support.
Stephan Neidenbach, founder of the page “We Love GMOs and Vaccines” (WLGV) and one of the authors of this article, was surprised to find that his page had been removed by Facebook censors. His page is dedicated to “promoting biotechnology and exposing those who wish to demonize it.” Such scientific chest-thumping offended a cadre of anti-GMO and anti-vaccine activists who complained to Facebook. Despite the fact that no policies were violated, the company acquiesced to their demands and deactivated the page. To add insult to injury, Neidenbach was subsequently banned from the platform for 30 days.
His story is not unique. Many other groups, including journalists, have found themselves targeted for arbitrary and bureaucratically inflexible reasons. Facebook banned journalist Laurie Penny for violating its “real name” policy — she had used a pseudonym to avoid cyberbullying and other threats. The author of The Economist blog Democracy in America reported that he was banned for posting a photo that contained nudity in the distant background but that Facebook did not ban the genocidal page Death to Israel. On the other hand, FB removed a post by Jerry Coyne that was critical of Islam.
Groups seeking social support have also been blacklisted. According to Quartz, breastfeeding mothers, plus-sized women, and sexual-health organizations have found themselves on Facebook’s naughty list. Facebook’s actions have served to worsen feelings of isolation among those who are merely seeking a refuge among like-minded companions.
Shortly after FB removed the WLGV page, it also censored content from the FB page for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). In an effort to promote a popular article that criticized a dicey epidemiological study linking meat consumption to obesity, ACSH paid for an ad, but it was not approved because, according to Facebook, it “use[d] profanity or refer[red] to the viewer’s attributes . . . or harass[ed] viewers.” When ACSH demonstrated this was untrue, FB gave a different reason: The post “emphasize[d] unrealistic expectations with providing a cure for obesity.” Of course, the post did the exact opposite. Besides, if that really is one of FB’s policies, why does it allow Dr. Oz — the controversial daytime-talk-show host who uses his medical degree to promote miracle cures and magic vegetables — to have a page?
Frustrated, we contacted the Facebook press office. After a short investigation, FB reinstated both the WLGV page and ACSH’s obesity ad. Regarding the former, a spokesperson added: “The page was removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate. Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake.”
Facebook’s policy seems clear: If somebody is offended, it is best to censor first and ask questions later.
While this is a victory for common sense and free speech, Facebook’s policy seems clear: If somebody is offended, it is best to censor first and ask questions later. This stands in stark contrast to what FB wrote to Senator John Thune, who led the investigation into allegations that Facebook was suppressing conservative news: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
Surely many would claim that FB, as a private company, has the right to promote or squelch whatever speech it wants. Nobody is forced to use Facebook, and any clever entrepreneur can start a rival social-media outlet. However, an equally compelling argument is that Facebook has become so big and dominant that it has a moral obligation to uphold societal values. The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting the freedom of speech, but in the 21st Century, restraints by corporations seem every bit as ominous. In many ways — on the issues of personal data collection and location tracking, for instance — the average person has just as much to fear from Facebook, Google, and Amazon as he does from Uncle Sam.
Laws in California and New Jersey appear to agree. According to the First Amendment Center, both states consider shopping malls as the equivalent of public spaces when it comes to free-speech rights. The legal reasoning is ultimately rooted in the Supreme Court’s decision in 1946 in Marsh v. Alabama, which essentially held that a private space that is open to the public must uphold public rights.
We believe that this is an apt and appropriate description of Facebook. With roughly 1.6 billion users, Facebook is the largest public space on earth. In the real world, laws protect us from oppression by “The Man.” Similarly, laws ought to protect our rights in the virtual world. Here, “The Man” is Mark Zuckerberg.