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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
Tagged with: social networking
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