In the last twelve months, the power of free speech afforded by social media outlets has been undeniable.  From the use of Facebook in regime-toppling movements during the Arab Spring to Weibo’s giving millions of Chinese citizens a previously unthinkable way to hear and be heard to the continued use of Twitter in the Occupy movement, social media’s uses have clearly gone beyond merely showing your friends (and, in the case of Twitter, hundreds or thousands of complete strangers) a picture what you had for lunch.  Indeed, these outlets can seem to be the ultimate fora for free speech, allowing users to reach far more people far more easily than in the past.

If you’re like me, then you tend to think of any sort of prohibitions of free speech in social media as a one-way street with a few select countries (e.g. China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the U.A.E.) censoring these services.  Last week, however, Facebook reminded nearly 200,000 of its members who had “liked” certain pages that it too can play the censorship game as it deleted a number of pages that featured rape-based jokes for violating the network’s terms and conditions.

Deleting these pages, which featured names like “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway,” however, marked an about-face from Facebook’s previous official stance of “just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”  Complaints about these sorts of pages have been mounting over the past several months from both advocacy groups and advertisers alike, but until now, Facebook has emphasized that its aims to keep its network as free as possible by not removing anyone’s statements unless they had the potential to cause direct harm.

But these deletions did not come as a complete surprise.  Rather than summarily removing the offensive content, Facebook instituted a policy which allowed the pages in question to remain on the website if their administrators would add a tag declaring that the websites were intended to be jokes.  When the administrators didn’t comply, down the pages went.

Still this action from Facebook has drawn criticism from several different angles.  Some victims’ rights groups argue that Facebook has not gone far enough with its purges or has not sufficiently publicized its efforts.  Conversely, others fear that the network has taken its first step down a slippery slope of suppression, a fear made all the more complicated by two basic facts: Facebook generates revenue by advertisements and some advertisers may refuse to be associated with certain messages.

Although Facebook, as a private entity, is free to censor whatever it wants, such censorship seems antithetical to the idea that social media is a seminal vehicle of free speech in the 21st century–a notion to which many, myself included, subscribe.  Has Facebook merely stepped up its long-standing effort to delete pages that refuse to play by the rules and thus harm the Facebook community at large, or has the world’s most prominent social network taken a sharp turn down the road to censorship?

– Hunter Branstetter

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8 Responses to You Can’t Always Say What You Want

  1. Ryan Sawyer says:

    I too have to agree with Paul. Facebook, as a private entity, is permitted to prohibit free speech. Users of facebook choose to be a part of the site and the requisite rules when they create a Facebook account. I discussed a similar premise regarding privacy complaints back in July at http://www.jetlaw.org/?p=6867. No one is forcing individuals to use Facebook. Facebook’s censorship is appropriate because every Facebook user agreed to it through the terms and conditions. Most importantly, there are plenty of alternative forums online for individuals to exercise their free speech rights.

  2. Joel Slater says:

    I think Facebook is approaching censorship in an pseudo-1st Amendment manner. It is user-centric 99.9% of the time and lets you write whatever you want. But occasionally it finds something that rises to an extreme level–like unapologetic rape “jokes”–and censors it. Unapologetic rape jokes are just facebook’s version of unprotected obscenity. Context is also important here. Had the joke been in a private message, I doubt Facebook would care.

  3. R.L. Florance says:

    I have to agree with Paul. First, users aren’t paying for Facebook, so they don’t have much room to complain. Second, Facebook is a private website that can quite honestly do what it wants whether or not it has far reaching effects. If Facebook starts clamping down on speech, users can always move on to the next social media site. Finally, although we may not like the fact that advertisers drive Facebook’s choices, if it were not for those advertisers, we would have to pay for Facebook’s service, making it accessible only to those who can afford it, which I am sure no one would want. Therefore, I don’t really see a huge problem with advertisers having a say in Facebook’s decisions.

  4. Lauren Gregory says:

    Maybe I’m being too cynical, but it seems to me that Facebook’s choices are probably driven almost entirely by economic forces rather than by the desire to let users sculpt their own online personas, or even by any general sense of decency. Facebook is clearly a brand, and it’s going to allow posts that make its brand look more appealing. So of course political speech is going to be allowed, as are even some off-color jokes if they manage to come off as witty rather than outright offensive. Apparently these “jokes” don’t cross the line until they make Facebook itself look bad — by generating bad press.

    • Hunter Branstetter says:

      Absolutely.

      Still, social networks are unique in that the commodity they offer to their customers (assuming that the customers are advertisers) is their user base. To ensure a quality “product” (more users and “better” users), social networks must at least appear to offer enough concessions/incentives to ensure that users both remain on the network and use it regularly. The recent hullabaloo about privacy settings and the new privacy policy provides a nice example of these sorts accommodations or appearance of accommodations.

      This statement may end up making me sound more cynical than you, but I still think there’s a strong tension between the Facebook-fostered perception that it’s a user-centric network–think about the innumerable statements from Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg about how users are what make Facebook great–and Facebook’s business-centric reality.

  5. Marina Visan says:

    I know this point has probably been overstated, and I certainly don’t want to belabor it, but users sometimes just do not take into account the consequences of their actions, especially in the context of social networking sites. While I am definitely an advocate of free speech and lack of censorship on these sites, I do think that users should be making their own choices but only when they are fully aware of the privacy constraints on that personal data, which I don’t believe is the case in this context. Most users probably don’t realize that studies have been conducted which show that online and offline data can be blended in such a way that a stranger on the street could identify you and have access to all your online information by merely taking a single picture of you. While users might feel at ease posting certain information online and liking certain pages, they might not be as comfortable with strangers knowing their likes and dislikes right off the bat. Furthermore, judges have been unsympathetic in the past to privacy rights online, even concerning private profiles. Therefore, we are getting to a point where if you don’t want your online data to be accessible to everyone, even perhaps complete strangers, you might want to think twice about putting it out there. Without the adequate information on privacy settings and facial recognition technology, perhaps users do not have the tools needed to make the most responsible decisions when it comes to their online profiles.

  6. Paul Russell says:

    I am reminded of the quote “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

    Here, if Facebook’s advertisers find the speech reprehensible,then Facebook can and should censor the speech. There are plenty of other websites on the internet, like Reddit, where off-color humor is allowed and often-times up voted.

    • hbranstetter says:

      Your point is spot-on, and the wide world of the internet definitely provides a stronger venue for free speech than any single social network does. Still a major appeal of Facebook and indeed something that sets it apart from many other sites like reddit or message/image boards like 4chan–both of which undeniably provide a better venue for off-color humor or shocking behavior–is the ability to create a digital web presence intimately associated with you as a person.

      Although the Facebook’s fine print says otherwise, the general view is that Facebook allows users total control and freedom to sculpt their online presence in the world’s largest social network unfettered by anything other than the law and basic decency. And I can’t imagine that Facebook is working very hard to dispel this notion. Then again, that plays right into your characterization of users as the products rather than the customers.