Facebook censorship (don’t worry, it doesn’t actually work)

26 Apr

At the Unlike Us #3 conference in March, Peter Olsthoorn, the Dutch journalist behind The Power of Facebook, asked who among the some 100 people in the audience likes Facebook. Only 3 or 4 people raised their hands, of which I was one. It wasn’t such a surprise given that Geert Lovink, one of the conference’s organisers and head of the Institute of Network Cultures, took part in Quit Facebook Day back in May 2010.

Furthermore, a number of participants spoke of negative and exclusionary experiences at the hands of Facebook, including Hester Scheurwater who was banned for posting artistic semi-nude photos of herself. Nonetheless, I was firmly of the position that despite the pitfalls of Facebook and it’s obvious purpose as a data-mining tool for advertising, the social networking platform is of value to activists and should be used with caution and political intelligence rather than rejected altogether. The events of yesterday have lead me to question this belief, although the jury is still well and truly out.

You may be familiar with the case, but I’ll provide a brief report for those who aren’t. At around midday on Wednesday, the Scriptonite Daily blog posted an article entitled ‘The Man Who Pushed a Toy Pig to Downing Street to Save our NHS.’ The article reported on the efforts of Mark McGowan, the Artist Taxi Driver, who was pushing a toy pig through London on his hands and knees, trying to get to Downing Street to deliver a letter signed by his children objecting to the privatisation of the National Health Service. The bill opening most of the NHS’ services to market competition was voted through Parliament and the House of Lords by individuals who stand to gain financially from the privatisation. You can read more about that on Scriptonite Daily’s blog, and about how the vote in the Lords was ignored by the media. The reason I want to draw attention to this here is the message Facebook users were met with when they tried to click on Scriptonite Daily’s link.

Rather than just going to the article users were met with an obscured image of the blog and a Facebook notice reporting that the article was possible spam that could harm their computers. Users were given the choice of confirming that the article was indeed spam and returning to Facebook or ignoring the warning and proceeding to the blog. Not only this, but in order to share the article, users were asked to fill in a captcha. In another article, posted yesterday and also flagged as spam by Facebook, Scriptonite Daily reported on the frustrated messages sent by Facebook users who wanted to view Wednesday’s article.

Scritonite Daily wasn’t the only blog affected. Tom Pride’s Pride’s Pruge blog was also listed as spam and users faced similar obstacles in accessing it. Tom has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in which he notes that these examples probably don’t represent a concerted attempt by Facebook to censor information it objects to politically, but a simple lack of foresight. The true root of the problem is that if individual users (in the cases described above, allegedly government employees) report articles as spam then Facebook will automatically present users with the ‘possible spam’ message and thus discourage them from reading the articles. While this can of course be defended as a very reasonable precaution, the fact that users cannot object to possible spam-classification and allow users to access their blogs and sites directly is a massive failure on Facebook’s part, and gives those the articles are criticising a very powerful weapon in silencing opposition. As Tom Pride writes in his letter to Zuckerberg, ‘What if I was an activist in Bahrain, or a blogger in Iran or a dissident in China? Perhaps then it could well be a matter of life or death, I’m sure you would agree.’

The point of all this is that Facebook is once again revealed as a very problematic platform for distributing criticism and radical ideas. If government officials or anyone else who has an interest in stifling dissent for that matter has the power to discourage users from accessing information, then the radical potential of Facebook is severely limited. While Facebook isn’t censoring anything itself, so far as can be proven, it is in effect colluding with censorship. If a newspaper editor or journalist spiked a story because one government official complained about it, then they would surely be held partly responsible for censorship. Facebook’s position is much the same: not because it allows users to report things as spam but because it makes it very difficult for others to have them rehabilitated.

The silver lining in all this is that thankfully, it doesn’t work. The Streisand Effect came into full force yesterday as the Scriptonite Daily blog, which normally gets under 10,000 views per day received an incredible 54,770 views yesterday. This, it should be noted, is not a testament to Facebook’s commitment to critical speech, but rather to the ability of Facebook users to, in a sense, hack the system and make sure that ‘censored’ information is spread far and wide.

This is clearly a problem for Facebook, but a relatively minor one given the amount of activists actually using it compared to non-activist users. The platform does, however, have a more serious problem. In the last few months, users have become more and more frustrated with the increasing presence of adverts (first in the right-hand bar and now in news feeds). This is a direct result of Facebook’s business model: it needs to provide profits for its shareholders and the only source of extraction it has is data-mining and advertising. This will, most likely, be Facebook’s demise. At the Unlike Us #3 conference, Peter Olsthoorn gave Facebook another 3 or 4 years before something will replace it. This may seem unlikely, but who can even remember Bebo or MySpace as popular networking platforms? Hopefully Facebook’s replacement will have less advertising and, more importantly, offer less obstacles to those wanting to share articles and information of the type that were censored this week. A truly autonomous social networking platform would be an answer, but I’m not convinced as to how realistic it is in the near future.

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