I don’t envy Facebook and other social media. If they continue to allow purveyors of hate and bigotry to use their platform, they are criticized and even face calls for government control. Yet, if they censor certain words, phrases or expressions or sentiments, or prohibit certain people altogether, they are criticized for violating the principle of free speech. (Perhaps someone should help monitor, say, Facebook, but should it be Facebook, or the government? Or I would say, an independent third-party, even if FB paid the tab. A discussion for another time.)
Since Facebook banned certain high profile personalities earlier this month I’ve been reflecting. Here are a few quick thoughts.
(1) I find myself repulsed by these public grotesque personalities and their toxic views. Someone like Louis Farrakhan, one of the people Facebook banned, has long been given too much prominence, and even respectability, despite his contempt for Western values, the USA, white people, women, and Jews, and indeed his animus toward so many, including homosexuals. To me, it’s clear that Farrakhan is a bigot who spews hate. I might even say this is objective reality, but still, this also is only my opinion, though widely shared. However, Farrakhan — by commonly accepted standards — is an equal opportunity hater.
(2) Social media and FB are not public utilities subject to government regulation, and I don’t think they should be. And, as private organizations, they have no government-required obligations to enforce the First Amendment. But, like any private sector company, they have explicit and implied contractual obligations with users, and those need to be carefully defined, clarified, understood and fairly implemented.
(3) The concept of “hate speech” troubles me, because there is a growing tendency among some to classify views they oppose as “hate speech.” I am a believer in the free exchange of ideas, because I believe that in the marketplace of ideas, good will eventually win out. But “eventually” may take awhile, and things are not always pleasant. In the USA, we have long distinguished between provocative and even offensive speech, and directly inciting violence. We hold people responsible if they commit violent acts, not those who unintentionally and even inadvertently inspired them. Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. obsessed about actress Jodie Foster, but surely his violence attack — the near fatal wounding of Reagan and crippling of Reagan’s press secretary — was not Foster’s fault.
(4) Censorship without widespread consensus is dangerous, and even with a widespread consensus, censorship is problematic. Consider, for example, that FB in its announcement, grouped Louis Farrakhan with the “far-right” — itself a term used differently, very differently, by different people. To some, it means a person who is not politically simply conservative, but very conservative. To others, it means someone not really conservative, but a bigot. Farrakhan is a bigot. But he not only NOT a political conservative (conservatives are among his enemies and harsh critics), he is more closely aligned with The Left. So FB, by its grouping and labeling, becomes an actor on stage, rather than stage manager.
Let me end by saying we as society, and FB and social media as entities, need to find balance, in the same way that television and radio, newspapers and magazines, try to set standards. For example, we don’t usually see the F— word in print, or on television programs that children may watch. But we don’t have some morals censor or religious censor, or, for that matter, a government or political censor. It’s not easy, especially in the Internet age of embryonic and still increasingly varied social media, to find balance, which can be an elusive goal. Although FB has been around for awhile, FB is still finding its way. (This is NOT a defense of Facebook!)
Here’s one maybe mind blowing point. What happens if we drive underground all these folks that we think (or the censor thinks) are “Bad People” or “Haters” or, maybe, imprudent folks and inarticulate folks who we think MAY provoke violence. Do we throw the proverbial “baby out with the bath water”? Are we more civil, is our discourse more pleasant? But at what cost? And who is next on the list to be ostracized, as we keep changing and expanding the definition of “hate speech”? Do we sacrifice the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and what comes of spirited debate, in what should be the social media version of yesterday’s “town halls”?
There is one final issue i leave you with. If we use a sledge hammer to err on the side of thoroughness and relentlessly drive ANYONE who MIGHT be a bigot or even a social misfit underground, how will we know who they are or what they might do? Wouldn’t it be better to find an ethical way to monitor social media and look for messages and hints and patterns of those who might be a danger to themselves and others?