Facebook and the outer limits of free speech

Published : 1 June 2013, 01:21 PM
Updated : 1 June 2013, 01:21 PM

The great thing about the Web is that it has given the opportunity to billions of people, who would otherwise never have had a chance to publish, to express their most urgent thoughts with an Internet connection and a few finger-flicks. It's also the Web's downside, as you know if you've had the misfortune to encounter a triple-Lutz revolting page during a Google search.

But thanks to the First Amendment, there are few U.S. laws banning expression on the Web outside of posting child pornography, specific physical threats, libel or copyright infringement. So there are few ways to eliminate hostile, ugly, vile, racist, sexist or bigoted speech from its many, many pages.

That doesn't mean that there's no recourse should you find content on the Web you disapprove of, as we learned this month when Facebook surrendered to a protest and boycott led by two groups, Women, Action, and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, and activist Soraya Chemaly. They opposed depictions of rape and violence posted by Facebook users and demanded, among other things, the removal of such "gender-based hate speech" from its pages. They also sought better policing by Facebook moderators to block future user-posted content that "trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women."

To illustrate its objections, Women, Action, and the Media posted screen-grab examples of gender-based hate speech from Facebook members' pages. Some of the images juxtapose photos of women in degrading or helpless positions with messages promising rape. "Slipped the Bitch a Roofie—Bitches Love Roofies," reads the copy over one unconscious young woman in her undergarments.

Others make jokes of women bleeding from the face or black-and-blue from a beating. "She Broke My Heart. I Broke Her Nose," reads another.

Facebook acceded to the protest after the groups convinced Nissan UK to cancel advertising and had other major advertisers on the site contemplating the same. Given the company's existing community standards, the promise to eliminate a new classification of expression was no leap. The 1 billion-member-strong site already prohibits "graphic imagery for sadistic pleasure," "hate speech" (including attacks based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition), "bullying and harassment," "promotion or encouragement of self-mutilation," "nudity and pornography" and "violence and threats." Adding another monitored and prohibited category hasn't really inconvenienced the company.

Besides, who can object to Facebook's decision to set rules for conduct inside its house? Just because Facebook has given you free access to its 21st century universal printing-press doesn't mean it has an obligation to publish your message. If you don't like Facebook's rules, you can still create controversy and test boundaries at other social media sites.

You want absolutely free speech? If it's that important to you, go pay for the right to exercise it somewhere else on the Web.

At the risk of reading Facebook's mind, I suspect its capitulation has less to do with expunging transgressive content from its pages than protecting the flow of corporate advertising dollars that prop up its $56 billion market cap. Radio and television broadcasters were equally sensitive to protests and boycotts back in the old days when their business models — like Facebook's — were providing a free, advertiser-supported service.

Whole "standards and practices" divisions were established at the networks to sanitize TV shows lest they offend. This CNN timeline of TV censorship gives you an idea of how aggressively corporate censors worked to keep such obscene words as "pregnant" off the air, to obscure Elvis Presley's gyrating pelvis, to block the bare navels of Gilligan's Island's Mary Ann, I Dream of Jeannie's Jeannie, and Gidget from the visual field of viewers.

But as radio and television began to migrate from their free venues to paid ones, that which was once forbidden has become almost compulsory. Smutty talk and naked bodies that would have given a network censor a brain hemorrhage back in the 1960s have been proliferating on every channel — even on the free channels!

Activists have little leverage in deterring the producers at SiriusXM's X-rated comedy channels or cable's HBO, Starz, Cinemax and Showcase channels from running shows whose plots, dialogue and imagery would automatically violate one of Facebook's content guidelines. Nudity and pornography are so pervasive on cable that you could probably start a channel of that name and nobody would protest.

"The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say," Jonathan Rauch wrote almost 20 years ago in a persuasive Harper's magazine essay titled "In Defense of Prejudice: Why Incendiary Speech Must Be Protected."

One of Rauch's many rousing points was that prohibitions on speech and expression by "purists," as he calls them, almost inevitably backfire. Banishing or excommunicating the speakers of ugly, stupid and coarse ideas does not eliminate them. It usually drives them underground where sweet reason can't be heard and where shame does not work.

Banning the ugly also creates a mechanism by which other speakers can be suppressed. "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too," Rauch wrote. "Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

There's more danger contained in prohibiting vile speech than there is in vile speech itself.

Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist.