February 8, 2016

If you think you can speak your mind online, think again. A survey given last year by technology and media company Morning Consult found that one in three people believe they have less freedom of speech on the internet than a few years ago and almost half (45 percent) of respondents think we’ll have even less in years to come. These numbers point to public awareness of the slow erosion of freedom of expression in the online arena, a rapidly growing and increasingly important social and economic sphere. According to Pew Research Center, social media is the largest online platform, reaching more than two-thirds of all adults. Of social media platforms, Facebook is the most extensive, with over 1.35 billion users. Facebook’s far-reaching influence and commercial prominence has allowed it to achieve a power and leverage that captures attention at the national and international level. But Facebook seems to be using its capabilities to suppress ideologies that run counter to its corporate purposes rather than to promote a diverse exchange of ideas. This, coupled with its wide reach, is dealing a blow to freedom of speech online.

A U.N. luncheon held in September of 2015 showcased Facebook's involvement with censorship in a spectacular way. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel requested that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put a halt to the anti-immigrant sentiments regarding Syrian refugees that were being posted on the site—and he agreed. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg and Merkel, the mic was hot during their conversation and it was clearly recorded. Ironically, Mr. Zuckerberg was at the U.N. luncheon to campaign for worldwide internet access. While it is unsure whether Mr. Zuckerberg’s claim that widespread internet access will bring about world peace through “a common global community with a shared understanding” is valid, what is certain is that worldwide access will bring a large influx of revenue to Facebook’s coffers.

Facebook’s power and reach is already such that it picks and chooses causes to support and repress through censorship of users' posts. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that Facebook pages belonging to Syrian activists and others involved in the Syrian-Turkish border clash had been taken down. Removal of these pages left Syrian citizens no source of information other than their own government’s heavily censored media it and effectively destroyed historical documentation critical to the rebel cause. Later, independent Turkish press agency Bianet quoted Turkish Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim as saying that Twitter, “turned down our cooperation offer,” and also that “Facebook has been working in coordination with the Turkish authorities. We don’t have any problem with them.” This statement implies Facebook’s close relationship with the repressive Turkish government, a fact that Facebook refuted, claiming that it had not provided user data to Turkish authorities. Perhaps not; but it did remove the pages of individuals and groups that were acting counter to the wishes of the Turkish regime.

It’s also no secret that Mark Zuckerberg has been courting Chinese officials in a bid to get the restrictive country to allow his company into their enormous market—a move that would let Facebook access China’s untapped audience of over 600 million internet users. He’s hosted Chinese officials like Lu Wei, China’s Minister of Cyberspace Administration and even asked President Xi Jinping to name his firstborn child. Now it appears he is so intent on opening up the massive Chinese market that he is censoring leading dissidents to win points with the Chinese government. Online news source techdirt notes that Facebook deleted posts by Tibetan activist, Tsering Woeser, as well as posts from one of China’s most prominent exiled writers, Liao Yiwu. Ms. Woeser speculates that Facebook is playing political chess by blocking her account, which was suspended for showing a video of a Tibetan monk protesting repression through self-immolation. Ms. Woeser, who notes similar videos had not been censored previously, worries that Facebook's suppression of users’ freedom of expression coupled with Zuckerberg’s ingratiating behavior towards Chinese officials spell trouble for Chinese protestors.

Liao Yiwu was censored for posting pictures of a streaking anti-government protester. Although Mr. Liao had covered up genitalia in the photo, Facebook deleted the post and told him that he could face a ban from the social media platform if he continued publishing posts of this nature. According to The New York Times, Mr. Liao responded: “They said I’d have to change my ways or I’d never post again on Facebook, but I didn’t knuckle under (to) the Communist Party, and I won’t knuckle under (to) Facebook.”

Facebook plays politics at home as well as abroad, censoring politically motivated posts with which it disagrees; and that’s a problem when you look at how much influence Facebook has on getting out the vote. When a 12-year-old African American boy’s video defending comments regarding Barack Obama’s lack of love for America went viral, his account was locked by Facebook for “suspicious activity.” Likewise, black Christian conservative and Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain’s account was blocked for “abusive content,” but then unblocked minutes after an article was published on the conservative news and opinion website Breitbart, revealing Facebook’s arbitrary censorship of her account. Ms. Swain told the Breitbart News Daily radio show: “Facebook has a double standard when it comes to conservatives and liberals and Christians and secular people. And I wonder, with a corporation that large, is that legal? Can they discriminate against conservatives? Can they discriminate against religious people?”

Adding to its list of strong-arm tactics, Facebook has been accused of censoring speech centered on their competition such as social media upstart Tsu. In November of 2015, Facebook started deleting any post, even private conversations, on Facebook and its other platforms, Instagram and Messenger that mentioned its rival by typing the full name of “tsu.co.”

Facebook's next project may be the most distressing to individuals worried about the social media giant's ability to manipulate public opinion. Facebook has begun discussion with media news outlets like The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Guardian and others to start posting news content on Facebook rather than having users go through the publisher’s link. Writer Mathew Ingram argues that this will give Facebook a way to manage what content gets promoted and what does not, causing publishers to lose control of their content.

In addition, we know that the company manipulates algorithms to feature certain types of user posts. And according to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of the public uses Facebook as a news source as well as a way to tap into the opinions of friends and family. If Facebook is successful in combining manipulative post censorship with control of news content, it will be relatively easy for it to drive public opinion and promote the company’s pet values.

Advocates of Facebook say that, as a non-governmental entity, Facebook should be able to publish or prohibit content at its discretion. There are protections built into U.S. law that allow people the freedom to associate with whom they please on the basis of religion, political beliefs, the promotion of ideas and bona fide social, fraternal, civil, and other organizations which select their own members. Ironically, it is this First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression that allows Facebook the ability to choose what it allows in its forums; just as privately held brick-and-mortar companies post signs regarding rules for service in their establishments.

While Facebook can loosely be considered a social “club,” it is not private. In fact, Facebook’s self-reported mission is to “…give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” If you take that at face value, Facebook’s goal and its reason for existence is to be a platform for the expression of all viewpoints and opinions.

The company is diligent about removing posts and ads that contain direct threats or threats of self-injury, promotion of dangerous organizations, harassment or bullying, attacks on public figures, sexual violence or exploitation, or information that deals with regulated goods or criminal activity. And that’s as it should be. But as you can see from examples in this article they leave plenty of wiggle room for themselves to determine which ads, causes, events, products and services they want promoted on their site. They are, if nothing else, arbitrary and capricious in the inclusion or deletion of materials.

Even though Facebook is a privately held business that can set some rules regarding participants’ use of it, it should not be given carte blanche to censor the opinions, beliefs, news, products, services, events or causes with which it does not agree. Its forum as a place for personal expression should, if anything, promote freedom of speech and not quash it. The problem is not whether Facebook is liberal versus conservative or pro-Muslim versus pro-Christian; it’s that it doesn’t stand for anything on the surface—all of its machinations play out behind the scenes. There are plenty of news sources that are considered liberal or conservative; when you read one you do so with the understanding that you’ll be reading articles with a spin that appeals to their audience. Facebook must consider its audience: a multi-gender, multi-cultural group encompassing myriad religious beliefs, political opinions, likes and dislikes. It needs to either publish the opinions of the many without censorship, or reveal their stand on the issues so that people participating in their forums understand the bias and account for it.

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.