Facebook Shouldn't Censor Offensive Speech

Mark Zuckerberg made several newsworthy choices this week. One — to invoke Holocaust denial as an example of content that Facebook should keep up because “there are different things that different people get wrong” and “it’s hard to impugn [their] intent” — was ill-advised. 

But another — to keep Facebook from diving deeper into the business of censorship — was the right call. On Wednesday, Facebook announced a policy it put in place last month to remove misinformation that contributes to violence, following criticism that content published on the platform has led to attacks against minorities overseas. When pushed to go further and censor all offensive speech, Facebook refused

While many commentators are focusing legitimate criticism on Zuckerberg’s poor choice of words about Holocaust denial, others are calling for Facebook to adopt a more aggressive takedown policy. What's at stake here is the ability of one platform that serves as a forum for the speech of billions of people to use its enormous power to censor speech on the basis of its own determinations of what is true, what is hateful, and what is offensive. 

Given Facebook’s nearly unparalleled status as a forum for political speech and debate, it should not take down anything but unlawful speech, like incitement to violence. Otherwise, in attempting to apply more amorphous concepts not already defined in law, Facebook will often get it wrong. Given the enormous amount of speech uploaded every day to Facebook’s platform, attempting to filter out “bad” speech is a nearly impossible task. The use of algorithms and other artificial intelligence to try to deal with the volume is only likely to exacerbate the problem. 

If Facebook gives itself broader censorship powers, it will inevitably take down important speech and silence already marginalized voices. We’ve seen this before. Last year, when activists of color and white people posted the exact same content, Facebook moderators censored only the activists of color. When Black women posted screenshots and descriptions of racist abuse, Facebook moderators suspended their accounts or deleted their posts. And when people used Facebook as a tool to document their experiences of police violence, Facebook chose to shut down their livestreams. The ACLU’s own Facebook post about censorship of a public statue was also inappropriately censored by Facebook. 

Facebook has shown us that it does a bad job of moderating “hateful” or “offensive” posts, even when its intentions are good. Facebook will do no better at serving as the arbiter of truth versus misinformation, and we should remain wary of its power to deprioritize certain posts or to moderate content in other ways that fall short of censorship. 

There is no question that giving the government the power to separate truth from fiction and to censor speech on that basis would be dangerous. If you need confirmation, look no further than President Trump’s preposterous co-optation of the term “fake news.” A private company may not do much better, even if it’s not technically bound by the First Amendment to refrain from censorship. 

As odious as certain viewpoints are, Facebook is right to resist calls for further outright censorship. When it comes to gatekeepers of the modern-day public square, we should hope for commitment to free speech principles. 

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Anonymous

Because you're being an a-hole.

Anonymous

If Facebook wants to save lots of money for their shareholders, Facebook's attorneys should simply follow U.S. Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment legal limits. All the legal arguments have aleady been made for them - it's free! Since Facebook is a private company, their attorneys could also learn some "free" advice from the late Jack Valenti when he defended censorship in Hollywood pertaining to movies, TV and video games - simply defer to "parents" [private citizens] the authority to censor their children NOT the government nor Facebook. Adults can de-friend or unsubscribe if they get offended. Conservatives mostly complain about this stuff and they control the U.S. Supreme Court - defer to the high court Zuckerberg!

Anonymous

You make an interesting point. I wonder sometimes how corporate law works for companies such as Facebook, that like back when large retirement funding that a company had on the books -- that upon transfer of ownership -- the value of those assets can be used any way the new owner wants. So as Facebook aggregates lots of personal data, all they have to do is during the sale of the entity at some high speculative price, is have all personal data transferred under new rules and updated personal information policy. To Facebook, the personal data may very well be intellectual property, held as intangible assets reported for stock filings.

Anonymous

Janet Jackson should ask an ACLU attorney to represent her, since she suffered First Amendmend and Fourteenth Amendment injury [legal standing]. It's a very strong case on constitutional rights.

Jackson was financially penalized by a government agency that tried to censor the Super Bowl a few years ago. Prior to Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction", the very same government agency didn't fine men that exposed more skin than she did [Fourteenth Amendment violation]. Jackson was supposedly fined thousands of dollars and not invited back. That's legal standing in court!

Anonymous

Mark Zuckerberg should go online and look up "7 Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television" by comedian George Carlin [full version]. It's hilarious but also shows how impossible it is to censor speech. It's also worth noting about recent Cheerios cereal commercials, just a few years ago, were considered obscene by some viewers. What was the obscenity: one commercial showed an interracial couple eating breakfast together, a second commercial showed a gay couple.

Anonymous

"were considered obscene by some viewers," I still feel that way while watching a tampon commercial. Should I just get over it since I'm not in that target market?

Anonymous

Be careful what you ask for. Should the Bible be censored? What about police dramas on television? What about Sex In The City? What about cowboys in old Western movies? What about Star Wars? What about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? What about Lord of the Rings? What about Lord of the Flies? What about Animal Farm or 1984? What about war movies? What about Shakesspeare? Wouldn't they fail the test also?

SgrA*

It is likely that several court cases will result against government institutions brought about due to malfeasance or malpractice, and these cases will require the government pay out heavy settlements to litigants as a results of their wrong doing . . . how can we citizens and taxpayers protect ourselves from this Trump negligence? We could be talking billions in payouts for all the wrong doing by Trump administration activities. His unconstitutional acts should cost him and his family, not Americans' families finances. Especially when proven in a court of law that Trump falsely gave assurances, Trump fabricated details to support performance, and Trump fraudulently entered agreements to defame, harass, and malign others; even corporations which are people too.

Trump could potentially put the government at risk of class-action payouts, while using the Presidential Twitter feed to provide evidence of this wrongdoing, requiring only proof that the communications were meant to effect the intended negative results on private American citizens, who have a right by the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishments, like being ridiculed by the U.S. President on Twitter. President Trump has weaponized the tool of punishment, and there is legal recourse for it's being used by government against citizens (and corporations) with no legal due process. Facebook was weaponized through it's targeting of others, but that was done through Cambridge Analytica strategies exploited by the GOP, and through Bannon tricks in the Trump campaign. Malfeasance to the core.

Anonymous

But at the end of the day free speech is Free Speech whether you were offended or not

Hunter

For the most part I agree with the author here.

Personally I believe that Free Speech should extend to social media platforms because they are such a widespread phenomenon and to censor speech on those platforms is completely neutering the reach that one might have to get their word out there. I understand why some people would want speech censored but frankly unless speech is outright calling for violence as in declaring that someone or something should be attacked or killed Etc it should be protected and not censored.

Hate speech laws are at their very core unconstitutional and should be abolished entirely. People say mean things, there's hateful people there's racists, there's a violent angry people out there, yes, but that doesn't mean that you should ever censor speech that is just making a point even if it's wrong. It is a very dangerous precedent to censor speech and many social media platforms have started that downward slope already. I do not like Mark Zuckerberg but for once I actually agree with him even if you disagree with Holocaust deniers it does not mean that you should censor them or silence them. It's holy cow counterproductive because when you shut them down it only makes them feel like they have exposed something where they know something that general public doesn't know and you're trying to hide this information from the rest of the people out there. Instead refute tueor assertations wiith facts.

I usually disagree with the ACLU but for once this article is spot on. Silicon Valley cannot be allowed to dictate what is acceptable speech. basically in short if you disagree with statements and one makes and it offends you either ignore them or engage them and discussion and prove them wrong. They may not accept it yes but what kind of society do you want to live in where we censor anything that we don't like or we find distasteful that's not a society that I want it ever live in in anyone who wants to live in that Society you are no friend of mine and you are no friend of freedom. Freedom means putting up with distasteful hateful opinions as long as they are infringing on your rights or harming you or anyone else directly and that doesn't just mean your feelings

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