Facebook’s free speech problem

Facebook has a content problem; and it goes way beyond political meddling or “fake news.” Fundamentally, Facebook is grappling with the issue of free speech. At least, that’s what its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks.

In a recent interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, Zuckerberg pointed out that “the US has a very rich tradition of free speech; it is written into the Constitution.” He then said that “we [Facebook] have a very strong allergic reaction to trying to regulate that.”

The trouble is, Facebook’s hand is being forced by expert┬áprovocateurs like┬áStefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, who controversially visited our shores last week. These people, and even more extreme right-wingers like the conspiracy theory site Infowars, regularly test the limits of free speech online.

Facebook’s current approach is to try and control the distribution of content. It can either impose temporary bans (which it did recently to Infowars founder Alex Jones), or it can manipulate its algorithms to reduce the visibility of certain content.

As Zuckerberg later clarified by email to Recode, “our goal with fake news is not to prevent anyone from saying something untrue – but to stop fake news and misinformation spreading across our services.” He confirmed that Facebook will only remove content “if a post crossed line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group.”

We’re seeing the same debates about freedom of speech play out in the real world. When Molyneux and Southern announced an event in Auckland, mayor Phil Goff tweeted┬áthat they “will not be speaking at any Council venues.” Eventually the pair booked music venue The Powerstation for last Friday, only for the show to be cancelled at the last minute.

The main argument used against Molyneux and Southern was that they’re practitioners of hate speech. But if that’s the case, it seems social media companies are just fine with letting them speak on their platforms. Each has a regularly updated Facebook Page, with Southern followed by over 300,000 people and Molyneux by just over 50,000. Both also have well over 300,000 followers on Twitter.

So how do social media companies punish people if they are deemed to have posted something outside their content guidelines? Facebook and Twitter sometimes hand out 30-day bans, but the enforcement is inconsistent. YouTube’s “three strikes” policy is even more of a muddle, since each “strike” expires in three months and can be gamed in other ways too. All this means that people who regularly test the freedom of expression boundaries – such as Alex Jones and Lauren Southern – can easily evade permanant bans.

Southern has had temporary bans on social media before, but if anything they only serve to boost her personal brand. Her current Facebook profile photo plays up the image of someone the mainstream media and tech companies want to silence – she’s depicted with masking tape over her mouth.

Southern has also proven adept at playing off social media companies against each other. In May 2016, for instance, she was blocked from posting on Facebook for 30 days. Later on Twitter, she claimed it was “for saying Facebook is censoring conservatives.” Whether or not that was true, her Twitter post garnered nearly 900 comments, 4,300 retweets and over 4,000 likes. That’s the kind of PR that sells tickets for real-world events.

I do sympathise with Mark Zuckerberg in a way, because the likes of Molyneux and Southern are free to speak in public in any democratic country in the world (provided they can get a venue). So why should they not also have that freedom of expression online?

Legally, there’s nothing to prevent Molyneux and Southern from coming back to New Zealand to try again. In a Newsroom column last week, Dr Jane Calderwood Norton – a senior lecturer at the Auckland Law School, University of Auckland – pondered whether the pair’s trouble finding a venue “could lead us to think freedom of expression in this country is under attack.” She concluded that it wasn’t, noting that “mere offence is not enough to limit speech” under our Human Rights Act 1993.

Indeed, it’s much easier for countries to deal with contentious content than for social media companies. Presumably Molyneux and Southern have now gone back to their homes in Canada, so we can simply wash our hands of the outspoken duo. For Facebook and Twitter however, the drama over Molyneux and Southern’s right to freedom of expression continues.

Part of the problem is inconsistent content moderation. There’s a growing sense that Zuckerberg and others in powerful positions in social media aren’t taking their responsibility to moderate content seriously enough. Zuckerberg has decreed that Facebook won’t regulate free speech on his platform. But does he have a choice, when people like Alex Jones and Lauren Southern regularly walk that tenuous line between free speech and hate speech?

Author Tarleton Gillespie has just released a book called Custodians of the Internet, in which he attempts to rethink how content moderation is done by social media companies. In an except posted online, he argues for more transparency from the companies, better tools for users to help moderate content, and similar practical measures.

I think Gillespie hits the nail on the head though when he suggests social media companies should “reject the economics of popularity.” Alex Jones and Lauren Southern are experts at generating content that attracts huge numbers of likes, views, comments, and retweets – much of it from their opponents trying to shout them down. Most of this content is monetized by online advertising.

In the end, I don’t think Molyneux and Southern should be banned from social media platforms. They’re entitled to their opinions, as long as it’s not hate speech or advocating violence. I’m less keen on letting Infowars stay on Facebook or Twitter, because its consistent dishonesty is causing real harm (especially its noxious opinions about Sandy Hook).

Regardless of individual cases, it’s clear the current system of temporary bans and ineffective content moderation isn’t doing enough to disuade those who constantly push the boundaries of free speech. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the other social media platforms need to step up their game.