Should Facebook Censor Misogynistic Material?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about pressure that is mounting on Facebook to censor websites full of awful misogynistic material. The company said it was reviewing its processes for dealing with content under its hate speech policy.

As free speech and internet freedom advocates, what are we to make of this story? It seems to me that part of the ambiguity that arises in these cases is that there are two separate, incommensurable frames or paradigms through which we can interpret the situation.

In many respects, Facebook is a publisher like the New York Times, and like any editor has the right to exercise discretion in what it publishes, or allows others to publish in its pages. Within that framework (which is undoubtedly the legal framework that currently applies), those who care about internet freedom and free expression can relax, confident in the knowledge that whatever Facebook decides to do, all is well. In fact, from this point of view, we might note that social pressure against awful points of view is a perfectly acceptable means of restricting expression. Indeed, while we don't want the government censoring racist, misogynist, homophobic, or other hate speech, it is perfectly legitimate—desirable even—for citizens to express their social disapproval of such speech, and socially sanction those who use it. As a publisher, as a participant in the raucous conversation of public life, Facebook is entirely within its rights to act upon such anti-social material.

But Facebook can also be viewed through another lens. Facebook is in charge of a sprawling empire—a vast realm in which hundreds of millions of people vehemently express themselves and their opinions about the full range of human activity. It has to manage this swarming hive of activity, impose a minimum degree of order, and ensure that everything runs smoothly. It has the power to set rules, and to enforce them. In short, when it comes to the vast realm it oversees, Facebook is a government.

Viewed as a government, Facebook is almost an experiment in political science. What happens when a realm of human endeavor is governed by a near-absolute ruler that can set any rule, squelch any speech, expel any "citizen" for any reason, with only the due process protections it sees fit to spend money on?

Inevitably, without democratic checks and balances and pressure valves and escape mechanisms that allow people to act when they are unhappy, frustrations build, and privately run online worlds, like undemocratic countries, can be susceptible to social unrest and instability.

At the same time, the absolute nature of Facebook's power over its realm can actually help when it comes to one danger that affects democratic governments in particular: tyranny of the majority. As our Founding Fathers were so aware, the democratic passions of the majority, if not guarded by a strong judiciary, can themselves lead to the trampling of rights. Unpopular points of view are especially susceptible. If Facebook members could vote, there is no question that a wide variety of speech would be disallowed. So Facebook plays the role not just of the executive and legislative branches, but also of the judiciary.

Like any government, Facebook also has an interest in separating itself from responsibility for bad things. In the case of Facebook, "bad things" generally means bad speech. As I've written about before, once companies open the door to any censorship, they open themselves to blame and recriminations not only for anything they choose to censor, but also for anything they choose not to censor. And soon they are embroiled in pressures and counter-pressures over what to allow and what to forbid. If they declare their forum a free speech zone, on the other hand, they can credibly disclaim responsibility for anything that is said there.

I think Facebook recognizes this, and so has been commendably resistant to many calls for censorship, which are legion. In addition to the controversy over misogynistic sites, for example, there are also ongoing campaigns to remove various racist sites, and sites that glorify animal cruelty. But Facebook often seems hesitant to play the role of censor.

I suspect that Facebook also recognizes that hosting a lively, raucous forum where passionate debates rage, is much healthier not only for speech, but also, as a company that sells page-views, for its bottom line. As outrage over various awful material builds, and gets forwarded and circulated around, Facebook benefits not only from the additional page views, but also from the general passion and engagement and simple attention that Facebook is generating among its users. For Facebook, boring is bad and anything else is good.

At the end of the day, however, Facebook is not an absolute potentate; it is a for-profit company dependent on advertising revenue, and that gives advertisers power over it. And behind the advertisers stand consumers. So though Facebook has been admirably restrained in exercising its plenipotentiary powers over its little world, ultimately unpopular speakers within that world are susceptible to an attenuated version of the tyranny of the majority.

I think that over the long term, Facebook's best course is to absorb some short-term pain and stick fast to the principle that its forum shall be one where speech is free. Eventually people will learn that on Facebook, as in a public forum run by the real government, censorship of speech is just not an option, and will direct their outrage where it belongs: against the speaker, not against the forum.

Update: A colleague points me to this recent piece by Jeffrey Rosen detailing the struggles of Facebook and other companies to deal with content issues, and arguing as I have done that it is in their interest to maintain a strong pro-speech stance.

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It's all fine and well to debate the legal protections and virtues of free speech on a private platform like Facebook. The author seems to be unaware, or else have forgotten that Facebook itself has a terms of use policy, which forbids hate speech, and speech inciting violence. Facebook already has a robust censorship machine that protects these terms of use.

I did not feel like this article sufficiently clarified that the agreement that Facebook recently announced addresses the complaint that this "awful speech" is not merely "misogynistic", but is, in fact, inciting violence against women - in direct violation of Facebook's own terms of use - and that the agreement was necessary because Facebook was not previously adhering to its own terms with respect to speech advocated violence against women.


Do we really speak about only freedom of speech when we speak about people ability anonymously without real world consequences to engourage other people to commit crimes against people that can't protect themselves. Because if we view facebook as goverment then it also has responsibility to protect its citizen against threats that they can't or shouldn't need to protect themselves. As incitement is reprehensible in real world it should also be such in facebook world, but currently it is not and in worst cases it awards those who perpetrate to it. As facebook don't have legal authority over its citizens and its international which weakens power of real goverments to intervene on it. As facebook and its citezens don't have any other legal mean to protect other citizens than by removing such content from their virtual world. Which is in my opinion that is good reason to practice such moderation in forum like Facebook. Of course if we view Facebook and other social platforms in internet as goverments we should give them ability have legal power over their citizens, but I don't see such thing coming to be in any where of near future.


You support hate speech as long as it is directed at females and ignore the blatantly misogynistic manner in which Facebook censored women and content that WASN'T hate speech. So in this case ACLU, fuck you. You're the enemy of women's freedom and equality. Now sit in your ivory tower and tell us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin as long as you are so divorced from reality and the real world impact of what you suggest. PERHAPS if Facebook didn't censor women and discussion of women's issues while leaving anti-woman hate speech (and images) untouched as long as it is branded 'humor' you might have had a leg to stand on. But you didn't and shame on you.


This is a blatant straw man argument. Facebook is not a governmental organization. Therefore, it should be free to protect its users and advertisers from anonymous internet hate speech (let's not kid ourselves that hate memes are provocative speech intended to invoke debate). While interesting to debate here in the comments of the article, I hope the ACLU does not take up this issue in its legislative or court advocacy campaigns as it will only detract from its mission to protect our civil liberties from government infringement.


A Facebook page called “Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich?" Oh, the horrors Western woman must face on a day-to-day basis!

Give me a break.


I have no idea what you're talking about. First of all, they don't kick the users off, they close down the community pages. I've never heard of facebook kicking a user off for something like that.

Secondly, and most importantly, Facebook openly censors hate speech. It's in their policy. If people put up racist pages or something they take them down. This is their policy and has been their policy for a while.

The only exception to this policy is women. Pages dedicated to making rape jokes and being violent against women are commonplace. When the reports are consistently ignored and branded as "humor." It is a ridiculous double standard, and this blog post is not helping in any way.


Oh my goodness. Are these people living in the dark ages? I can't work out if they're really really thick, or just really really misogynist. Either way, they just lost whatever crediblity they ever had. I can't believe anyone would defend this shit.


Facebook is very happy to censor anything related to breast-feeding. Google facebook nurse-in and see.


Well, if this is your opinion, then why aren't you discussing how wrong it is for Facebook to remove photos of women breast feeding and keep "free speech" which is advocating direct bodily harm against women, a minority?

And what about the reasonable expectation that Facebook follows its own Terms of Use as Missa mentions above?


Funny how you only choose to speak up about "free speech" when the target is misogyny. Where was all this "fight for your freedom" bullshit when racism and all other hate speech was being banned?

And where were you were perfectly inoffensive and inspirational pictures were being banned because somebody found the idea of empowering women threatening?

You're not preaching about rights, you're preaching in support of complete hypocrisy.

ACLU I'm disappointed, no screw it, I'm flat out pissed off that you allowed this article and POV to be associated with you. Half the population's rights and safety are at stake and you're worried about the freedom of the perpetrators and a "right" that doesn't even apply to this situation.


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