Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.
When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.
Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?
And that is the first problem, because no-one else’s Facebook page has such a protection either. Vast swathes of political discourse take place on Mark Zuckerberg’s platform. We treat it like a public square, but it is not. At any moment, the messages we post, and the networks we have built can be taken away from us.
Whatever mechanise that has been used to shut down the far right will be used to censor other groups. Campaigners will note the demise of the Britain First page and seek to have other pages similarly banned. Islamist groups and the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists will be at immediate risk, but other kinds of political discussion will soon be targeted. Any legitimate political cause that contains militant elements, such as pro-Palestine or pro-Kurdish groups, could easily find their Facebook privileges are revoked when those who are ideologically opposed start gaming the complaint features.
This is privatised censorship. Individuals and interest groups can and will enlist the help of a billionaire to shut up people with whom they disagree. The western liberal democracies are unlikely to participate in this shutting down of discussion, but authoritarian regimes and their avatars will get in on the act sooner or later. Embattled groups, such as the liberals in Saudi Arabia or the LGBT activists in Uganda will find themselves squeezed even tighter.
Our response to this cannot be “well, you can always go elsewhere”. Where exactly? MySpace? Friends Reunited? Independent websites (such as this blog) do not have the same networking opportunities and potential for ‘virality’ that the leading social media platforms offer. Social media is where our discourse happens now and all other content is filtered through these platforms. They are private spaces where we conduct very public politics. Denial of access to these spaces presents a huge barrier to expression for anyone thus suppressed. A single American company should not be the final arbiter on what organisations get to participate in British politics. We may think they have made the right call in banning Britain First… but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The centrality of Facebook to our political discourse has other facets. I have not addressed in detail the fact that many of the examples of censorship are clearly approved by algorithms, or at least by people exercising very little human judgment in their moderation decisions. Historically important art and journalism keeps falling foul of the platform’s usage policy.
In recent years there has been growing awareness of the way in which Facebook can influence the political process. Hilariously, the company is now downplaying it’s influence in this regard, having previously trumpeted the efficacy of its online tools. We also know their engineers have experimented with altering people’s moods through its news feed.
These are all conscious interventions that most people find disconcerting. But just as worrying is the way in which social media platforms cause us harm even when a mens rea is entirely absent. We know that ‘fake news’ goes viral because social media algorithms that optimise for ‘engagement’ have learnt to favour sensational but extremely dubious news stories. The work of Zeynep Tufecki is enlightening on this subject. Her latest piece for the New York Timesexplains how YouTube inadvertently catalyses radicalisation, for example.
Another problem, most relevant internationally, is that social media platforms present a single point of failure. Recent history is littered with examples of governments seeking to block access to social media. Iran did so during the ‘Green Revolution’ protests of 2009 and Egypt did so during the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011. During the London riots that same year, British members of Parliament expressed support for the idea that the government might take social media services entirely off-line during times that suited them. I wrote a commentary on this idea at the time.
The counter to this threat is to distribute the network. Use different platforms or use technologies that do not require a centralised server like RSS or Mastodon. By spreading out we are harder to stop. We have known that this is important for nearly a decade, but everyone, including yrstrly, seems wedded to the corporate silos.
Facebook and other social networks have certainly brought us more speech, and that outpouring of expression is usually unfettered. But they have also brought us a new kind of bullying. They incentivised fake news. They optimise for outrage. They centralise control of the discourse in the hands of very few people, who do not our enlightenment as their main priority. In these ways, Facebook and social media work against the spirit of free speech.
Free speech should about promoting a diversity of voices and opinion. It should be about platforming the politically powerless and the ignored. It should be about promoting a genuine, functioning marketplace of ideas. Social media companies need to find ways of optimising for these outcomes, and we users need to start adopting those platforms that do.