Policing Facebook

Amanda Marcotte praises the site for cracking down on content containing hate-speech against women:

This is good news, because things had gotten ugly. Women Action & the Media collected some examples of offensive posts, which included images of women who had been murdered, young girls being raped, and pictures of women tied up or assaulted with “joking” encouragement for men to rape and beat women. In one case, the example (a picture of a murdered woman with the caption, “I like her for her brains”) included a response from Facebook saying that the image didn’t violate its terms of service.

Jillian C. York dissents:

For years, activists all over the world have complained of arbitrary takedowns of content and unfair application of Facebook’s “real name” policy. Along with breastfeeding moms are people like Moroccan atheist Kacem Ghazzali, whose Facebook pages promoting atheism in Arab countries were regularly removed.  Before he rose to fame as the man behind the January 25 protests in Cairo, Wael Ghonim experienced a takedown of his famous “We Are All Khaled Said” page because he was using a pseudonym.  And not a week goes by where, as director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I don’t receive emails from individuals from the United States to Hong Kong telling me their account was deleted “for no good reason.”

This happens because the company is merely unequipped to deal with the sheer number of complaints it receives on a daily basis. One billion users undoubtedly translates into millions of reports through Facebook’s system, a system about which the company is famously opaque.  Whether these reports are fed through an algorithm or dealt with individually remains unclear, but what is certain at this point is that, like the atheism example above, many such reports are false positives. So while Facebook is well within its rights to determine what types of speech it wants to host, the company is inconsistent at best at managing its own policies, and at worst, biased in those policies.

Alyssa zooms out:

[T]here is no “YouTube Community” or “Facebook Community” with an agreed-upon set of standards for what constitutes hate speech or inappropriate content. There are multiple communities that are in some cases violently at odds. And if social media or technology companies want to keep some of their users–and as it seems, some of their advertisers–those companies may have to decide between their user communities when they come into conflict.

This is in violation of both tech-libertarian ideals and market principals that suggest that internet communities should be able to regulate themselves successfully, editing out offensive content and expelling members who don’t adhere to stated or unwritten codes of conduct. In reality, this has proven to be less true. Gated communities like the pay-to-play site Ask Metafilter, or heavily moderated sites like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic exist, but they’re considered exceptions rather than the general rule, which tends more towards a consensus around sentiments like “don’t read the comments.” Sites like Facebook and YouTube aren’t so much communities as platforms on which many communities, some of them dedicated to the eradication of the ideas or sentiments expressed by others, can operate.

Shafer compares Facebook to the TV networks of old:

At the risk of reading Facebook’s mind, I suspect its capitulation has less to do with expunging transgressive content from its pages than protecting the flow of corporate advertising dollars that prop up its $56 billion market cap. Radio and television broadcasters were equally sensitive to protests and boycotts back in the old days when their business models — like Facebook’s — were providing a free, advertiser-supported service.

Whole “standards and practices” divisions were established at the networks to sanitize TV shows lest they offend. This CNN timeline of TV censorship gives you an idea of how aggressively corporate censors worked to keep such obscene words as “pregnant” off the air, to obscure Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis, to block the bare navels of Gilligan’s Island‘s Mary Ann, I Dream of Jeannie‘s Jeannie, and Gidget from the visual field of viewers.

But as radio and television began to migrate from their free venues to paid ones, that which was once forbidden has become almost compulsory. Smutty talk and naked bodies that would have given a network censor a brain hemorrhage back in the 1960s have been proliferating on every channel — even on the free channels!