I discovered recently that Facebook does run censorship. When we sign up with Facebook, we agree to a set of rules and guidelines about the content of our pages and our wall posts, but apparently Facebook goes beyond ensuring we respect our agreement. Even though the wording of all agreements are subject to interpretations, some of the content Facebook has disallowed cannot be justified by an interpretation of the rules.
Facebook started as a social network, but with time it has also assumed the role of a new form of free and democratic press. Like any other publication, Facebook has to follow guidelines and limitations and to negotiate rules and legalities about what it considers proper, which we have to understand and accept. So far, so good.
It is a tricky business to define proper or to decide what is proper and what is not. Proper may refer to content and wording, which are two separate issues. What some might find proper, others might not. Sensibilities vary enormously, from one side of the scale to the other—and from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other within basically the same culture. The question is not so much to draw a line between proper and improper, but how improper content and/or wording must be before we filter it out (censor it): how hard shall we turn the content and wording filter? Most people in Europe would probably accept everything except pornographic content, obscenity, violence, obscene language, (but we’d have to agree as to whether f-words are obscene these days). In the more puritan (or uninformed) USA, the list of the unacceptable would be longer than in Europe.
How hard shall Facebook, then, turn the content/wording filter? Turn it too little and you will lose some customers; turn it too hard and you will lose others. Facebook is really between a rock and a hard place, but so are all other publications (and all of us).
It’s not only tricky, but fundamental for Facebook to take the right decision about the level of its content filter. In the end, we are talking about freedom of expression and freedom of speech and we must not take these topics lightly.
After some research on the internet (see links below), I discovered that the problem is not filtering wording. Facebook seems very liberal in that context and its users keep a good tone in general. The problem is that there are several examples of content, which Facebook disallowed—and that amounts to regular censorship, which is not compatible with a democratic ideology and freedom of expression (nor the American first amendment).
It is with freedom of expression as it is with pregnancy: you cannot be a bit pregnant. It’s an either/or attitude as Noam Chomsky wrote “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Similarly and much earlier, Voltaire wrote ”I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
Facebook stands at a crossroads now. Requiring guidelines like a certain tone of speech is one thing. To censor ideological, political or religious content is another—and that defines your image.
It’s tricky indeed to choose a content filter and to decide how hard to turn it on. Everyone that has held a post to moderate discussions, forums, blogs, knows that. Personally, I will always, like Voltaire, defend the right to freedom of expression, but we have to understand what it means. Many confound freedom of expression with disrespect and one has nothing to do with the other. Likewise, there is a huge difference between disputing the argument and attacking the person behind it.
As far as I am concerned, you have the right to say and write all you want, independently of what I or anyone else may think, and even if it would seem as pure nonsense for most people, as long as you in your choice of words and phrases do it in a way in which you respect everyone independently of species, race, appearance, sexual orientation, or any other individual characteristic. You may disagree with me and tell me “you’re wrong,” “your argument doesn’t make sense.” It won’t upset me and I will even thank you for it in many instances—and I will certainly continue talking to you. On the other side, if you call me numskull, it won’t upset me either, but that’s the end of the conversation.
Disagreement is allowed, disrespect is not. We are all responsible for our acts, including our written and spoken words. If we claim the right to say what we want the way we want it, we must confer others the right to react to it. If we don’t like the probable consequences of what we want to say, we’d better not say it, because we also have the right to think before we speak and not seldom, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” as Soren Kierkegaard wrote.
As to Facebook, I’d like to be my own moderator and filter the content/wording I like (except for pornography, obscenity, obscene language, violence, inciting to violence, any form of discrimination and spam, which Facebook is welcome to filter away for me (after defining those terms precisely). Political and religious filtering? No, thank you. Most probably, I won’t read it anyway, but I want to reserve the right to do it myself.
I like Facebook, it’s a great initiative and it’s well done. The company is still young and bound to make mistakes (see links below). Maybe, Facebook is just reacting to the “loudest complainers” (the puritans, the extremists, the fanatics) in which case maybe it’s about time the rest of us, demanding freedom of expression in a respectful tone, should become louder. I think we should give Facebook a chance to find its foothold, correct its mistakes and stick to freedom of expression. Facebook is too good not to do it.
My own case with Facebook, which prompted this blog, and which I discovered by accident, is fairly irrelevant. I just wrote a funny (at least I think it is) comment about Twitter including the words “sex” and “condom.” After a bit of research I reckon that the word “Twitter” was the culprit (see links below), which is a bit silly, not the other words. My comment didn’t reach any of my friends after the first five minutes or so (the Facebook algorithm is good). If you’re curious, you can still see it, but you’ll have to go directly to my wall.
Life is a blank (Face) book. Write on!
- Hate Speech (But Only On Facebook Terms) (caledoniyya.com)
- Thoughts on Censorship (areweconnected.com)
- Should Twitter Censor? (businessethicsblog.com)
- Facebook Welcomes Your Baby Penis Pictures [Censorship] (gawker.com)
- America’s #1 Facebook Censorship Politician: Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner and US House Member Pedro Pierluisi (juliorvarela.com)
- Pornography and the Myth of Free Speech (radicalhub.wordpress.com)
- Internet Censorship Weekly Recap (censorshipinamerica.com)