D onald Trump’s single four-year term forever damaged the American presidency. The 45th president sullied the office with his behavior before, during and after his tenure. And it all began with a social media influence operation by the now-legendary Cambridge Analytica.
Many of his speeches and nearly every tweet contained open hatred and mockery of his fellow Americans. Instead of inspiration, he offered grievance. Instead of calm, he projected incitement to further hatred and violence on the part of his followers.
Yet because Trump had achieved the highest office in the land, few had the courage to silence him. In spite of the 30,000 documented lies he told during his term, most journalists and social media companies deemed him newsworthy. After he baselessly contested the 2020 election results, Twitter notably applied warning labels to his posts.
It wasn’t until Trump directly incited the January 6th, 2021 insurrection that America’s free-speech libertarians finally recognized that his social megaphone represented a national security threat, and muzzled him.
Meanwhile, his surrogates like Rush Limbaugh, and his millions of sycophantic followers were left scot free to spew and share their hateful bile from every orifice, which often included death threats against public figures. Although Limbaugh canceled his own Twitter account in solidarity with the former president, he still had access to his radio audience of millions, rendering the gesture irrelevant. During and after Trump’s term in office, open death threats have become a staple of mainstream conservatism. Trump began this trend by endorsing “2nd Amendment solutions” were he to have lost the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton.
Neutrality favors the oppressor
Studies of Facebook’s content moderation demonstrate a clear advantage for conservatism. Which means the platform is complicit in the spreading of right-wing hate and lies. To be sure, Facebook has clamped down on some right-wing content, and many conservatives decamped to Parler, Telegram, Gab, and elsewhere. But by treating criticism of right-wing figures as equivalent to right-wing hate, Facebook has taken a clear position of feigned “neutrality,” which as Elie Wiesel famously said, favors the oppressor.
For pushing back on Rush Limbaugh’s hate, on the occasion of his death, I caught a 3-day ban. [Photo above] Notably, this ban happened nearly a month after my original post. If all my past content were scrutinized, I’m quite sure I’d spend many repeated stints in Facebook jail. My next sentence would be a 7-day ban. After that it’s 30 days at a stretch, or longer. Since I manage The Radical Secular Facebook page, I can’t risk being out of commission, or worse losing access to my account altogether.
Time to look for other options. Yeah I know, backup accounts. But this is a matter of principle. Facebook isn’t much of a welcoming place for justice warriors anymore.
So bring back the blog
Not that anyone reads blogs any more, do they?
Here I am during my Facebook ban, posting on my blog, with no concern whatsoever that anything I say will be taken down. I own the platform, and control the content unconditionally. It’s a fucking good feeling, and I’ve felt it many times before. Time to revisit! But is anyone listening?
In the heady post-9/11 days of 2001 on the internet, I started this blog. A few years later, I’d made tons of new friends. I had a growing blogroll, listing the several dozen people whose blogs I read, and respected enough to recommend to others. Membership in my fraternity had a reasonably high barrier to entry. A place on my blogroll meant, at a minimum, that a person had taken the time to write considered essays that didn’t suck. There was no danger of my harboring trolls or idiots or glurgemeisters.
Plug-ins like Intense Debate and Disqus allowed Facebook-style interactions. Sometimes my posts garnered hundreds of comments. On occasion, I also had to ban people from commenting on my blog, just as we all now ban people from our Facebook pages. Blogging in the early 2000s with comments, was a similar experience to modern Facebooking. But it couldn’t last. Zuck’s juggernaut was coming for our blogs, and there was no going back. Or so it seemed.
At first, Facebook had little impact on my blogging habits, since its reach was small. After I joined FB in 2006, it took several more years before my audience had largely migrated away. During this transition, I used to post links to my new blog posts, and the two coexisted until about 2012.
Somewhere along the line I started writing more and more of my posts directly to Facebook. The instant feedback of the social “like” provided a dopamine hit I wasn’t getting from my blog posts. Ha! And my reach expanded. I quickly amassed more than 1,000 friends, when my blog readership on average posts had been in the hundreds. Like the rest of the world, I was hooked.
For a while, you could say anything on Facebook. I cussed like a drunken sailor. I called out everyone. I called people assholes and idiots without fear. And I gave as good as I got. You won’t find too many people with a thicker skin, or fewer fucks to give. I think the only time I had a post taken down in the 2010s was when I posted a shot of naked climate-protesting women from Australia with body paint that read, “Keep the Coal in the Hole.” I posted it without the banner covering their backsides, and caught a ban for nudity. Fair enough, these courageous women are definitely nude in front of their Parliament building!
Are Facebook’s community standards enforceable, reasonable and equally enforced?
Let’s analyze Facebook’s “updated” community standards on hate speech, which are apparently Zuckerberg’s “response” to calls from many quarters for a crackdown—to promote more civility. We’ll explore how these new standards are being weaponized to shut down anti-fascism.
I want to preface this section by saying that this is not by any means a First Amendment freedom of speech issue. Facebook is a private company and is well within its rights to kick anyone off its platform for any reason, at any time. However its behavior demonstrates a clear bias toward entrenched power, wealth, corporate capital, conservatism and white supremacy. Those of us who want to continue to fight fascism had better take notice and direct our efforts toward where they can still make a difference. And that might just be best served by a renewed emphasis on developing our own platform, like a blog.
What’s old is new again.
There’s a lot to agree with in Facebook’s rules about hate speech, and I’ll discuss inline where I believe them to be problematic to justice:
We believe that people use their voice and connect more freely when they don’t feel attacked on the basis of who they are. That’s why we don’t allow hate speech on Facebook. It creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases may promote offline violence.
We define hate speech as a direct attack against people on the basis of what we call protected characteristics: race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity and serious disease. We define attacks as violent or dehumanizing speech, harmful stereotypes, statements of inferiority, expressions of contempt, disgust or dismissal, cursing, and calls for exclusion or segregation. We consider age a protected characteristic when referenced along with another protected characteristic. We also protect refugees, migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers from the most severe attacks, though we do allow commentary and criticism of immigration policies. Similarly, we provide some protections for characteristics like occupation, when they’re referenced along with a protected characteristic.
Hmm, what occupations need protecting? Preachers? Politicians? Right-wing radio personalities? It’s difficult to understand what Facebook is getting at here. Public figures are normally immune from protections against libel.
We recognize that people sometimes share content that includes someone else’s hate speech to condemn it or raise awareness. In other cases, speech that might otherwise violate our standards can be used self-referentially or in an empowering way. Our policies are designed to allow room for these types of speech, but we require people to clearly indicate their intent. If intention is unclear, we may remove content.
So far, mostly so good. However we can see them beginning to build a case here, for going beyond hate speech against a protected class. The concept of a protected class applies to immutable characteristics, as opposed to chosen behavior. This distinction is vital to separating hatred of people from hatred of ideas. This is not a trivial distinction.
Many ideas are worthy of contempt. Particularly ideas which promote barbarism, sociopathy, or exclusion. Facebook seems to be deliberately taking a stance against Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance, which maintains that a society must not tolerate intolerance, if it desires to maintain a tolerant society. This distinction couldn’t be more important. Ideas don’t have rights, people do. The right has made strong attempts in recent years to co-opt the left’s language of diversity and tolerance, to argue for “viewpoint diversity” even when viewpoints are abhorrent.
Do not post:
Content targeting a person or group of people (including all subsets except those described as having carried out violent crimes or sexual offenses) on the basis of their aforementioned protected characteristic(s) or immigration status with: Violent speech or support in written or visual form, Dehumanizing speech or imagery in the form of comparisons, generalizations, or unqualified behavioral statements (in written or visual form) to or about: Insects, Animals that are culturally perceived as intellectually or physically inferior, Filth, bacteria, disease and feces, Sexual predator, Subhumanity, Violent and sexual criminals, Other criminals (including but not limited to “thieves,” “bank robbers,” or saying “All [protected characteristic or quasi-protected characteristic] are ‘criminals’”), Statements denying existence, Mocking the concept, events or victims of hate crimes even if no real person is depicted in an image, Designated dehumanizing comparisons, generalizations, or behavioral statements (in written or visual form)- that include: Black people and apes or ape-like creatures, Black people and farm equipment, Caricatures of Black people in the form of blackface, Jewish people and rats, Jewish people running the world or controlling major institutions such as media networks, the economy or the government, Denying or distorting information about the Holocaust, Muslim people and pigs, Muslim person and sexual relations with goats or pigs, Mexican people and worm like creatures, Women as household objects or referring to women as property or “objects”, Transgender or non-binary people referred to as “it”, Dalits, scheduled caste or ‘lower caste’ people as menial laborers
Facebook’s Tier 1 guidelines seem sound in principle. They seem to have done a credible job of defining pretty much every racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic trope of the past century. And they’ve also called out many of the underhanded tactics racists, sexists, homophobes and transphobes have used, such as denying the existence of protected classes or hate speech.
A notable problem with these standards is in implementation. I’ve seen dozens of posts, violating any number of these guidelines, that stayed up. Friends of mine have reported the posts, only to have Facebook respond that the post “does not violate community standards.” What good are explicit rules, if not enforced?
I can sort of forgive Facebook for not being 100% consistent here, since it’s not possible to automate the evaluation of every subtle form of hate speech, especially when jargon or innuendo are involved. It requires using human workers to make judgment calls. Many of these workers spend long hours being exposed to the most vile content imaginable. Facebook moderators immerse themselves in the very worst of human depravity, and suffer tremendous negative impacts to their mental health. So they’re often not going to make the right call. They are also clearly subject to their own biases about racism and sexism. It’s clear who they most often give the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to maintaining a consistent policy and supporting social justice, that’s just not good enough. A more enlightened moderation policy would always err on the side of taking down racist or sexist content, and leaving up (and even boosting) content criticizing racism and racists. That’s nothing close to what Facebook is doing. In being “fair” to right wing viewpoints, it’s giving its endorsement. That’s not sustainable. Facebook is clearly making the world a worse place through its content-moderation policies.
Content targeting a person or group of people on the basis of their protected characteristic(s) with: Generalizations that state inferiority (in written or visual form) in the following ways: Physical deficiencies are defined as those about: Hygiene, including but not limited to: filthy, dirty, smelly, Physical appearance, including but not limited to: ugly, hideous
Physical appearance or hygiene seems way, way overbroad. Truth is normally a defense against libelous statements. What if a person really fits those descriptions? It’s difficult to see how a description of someone’s appearance or hygiene could represent demeaning a protected class. It makes sense to define hate speech as saying something like “Mexicans are hideous.” But extending this protection to individuals also means that, for example, I couldn’t say “Trump is hideous,” even though he may have just said or done something actually hideous, such as making a not-so-veiled death threat against Hillary Clinton.
Mental deficiencies are defined as those about: Intellectual capacity, including but not limited to: dumb, stupid, idiots, Education, including but not limited to: illiterate, uneducated, Mental health, including but not limited to: mentally ill, retarded, crazy, insane
Using someone’s actual clinical mental deficiencies to attack them would definitely be a form of hate speech, especially the “R-word” which I would never, ever use.
It’s simply astounding, though, that Facebook is down to banning words that 5 year-olds use on a regular basis. That calling someone “dumb” or “ignorant” or “uneducated” or an “idiot,” could be construed as hate speech. These aren’t even curse words, and they are colloquialisms, and not meant to infer that someone is a clinical “idiot” or “moron.” But if we want to raise the tone of discourse, shouldn’t dumb arguments be able to be named as such? We have an epidemic of Dunning Kruger in the United States. If you have right-wing friends, it’s going to be awfully difficult to carry on a conversation without letting at least one instance of “dumb” slip out.
Moral deficiencies are defined as those about: Character traits culturally perceived as negative, including but not limited to: coward, liar, arrogant, ignorant, Derogatory terms related to sexual activity, including but not limited to: whore, slut, perverts
Classifying the calling out of “moral deficiencies” is the very worst corruption of the concept of hate speech. Reputation and morality are important markers of accountability. Truth-telling is vital. And yet on Facebook, calling someone a liar can get you banned. Arrogance and ignorance are traits we should all want to avoid, and when someone is behaving that way on our wall, they should be called out. It’s simply impossible to accept that we’re now defining calling a liar, a liar as hate speech. Infuriating.
The terms “whore,” “slut” and “pervert” are words that I never use. But they are forms of sexism and religious ideation, not moral deficiencies. Conflating the false moral deficiencies of so-called sexual licentiousness with lying, arrogance and ignorance is a terrible distortion and another example of Facebook’s inherent right-wing bias.
Other statements of inferiority, which we define as: Expressions about being less than adequate, including but not limited to: worthless, useless, Expressions about being better/worse than another protected characteristic, including but not limited to: “I believe that males are superior to females.” Expressions about deviating from the norm, including but not limited to: freaks, abnormal
It seems perverse that an expression of an opinion about an individuals worth or abnormality would be considered hate speech. This needs qualification that Facebook is deliberately avoiding: Relative denigration of worth between protected groups, is definitely a form of hate speech, such as “I believe Asians are superior to whites.” But conceivably a person could also be banned for saying “the idle rich are worthless.” Or “QAnon believers are freaks!”
Expressions of contempt (in written or visual form), which we define as: Self-admission to intolerance on the basis of a protected characteristics, including but not limited to: homophobic, islamophobic, racist, Expressions that a protected characteristic shouldn’t exist, Expressions of hate, including but not limited to: despise, hate, Expressions of dismissal, including but not limited to: don´t respect, don’t like, don´t care for
“I despise you” might be one thing. But are we in second grade? “I don’t like you” can now get you banned? I’ve often said to someone who was being particularly dishonest in a comment thread, “I’ve lost all respect for you.” How can Facebook consider such remarks to be banworthy? It seems that they would prefer to consider all but the most banal, anodyne conversation as offensive. Talk about “cancel culture!” Studying these guidelines makes me realize that Facebook is turning into a place where political reformers and justice warriors need not apply. It seems they only want docile customers content talking about their hobbies, cat videos, glurge, puns and lowbrow memes. No substantive debate can survive in a forum where it’s actually considered offensive to tell someone you no longer respect them, or their argument.
Expressions of disgust (in written or visual form), which we define as: Expressions that suggest the target causes sickness, including but not limited to: vomit, throw up, Expressions of repulsion or distaste, including but not limited to: vile, disgusting, yuck
What if barbarous behavior really does make me want to throw up? Former President George W. Bush was recently quoted as saying that the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection made him “sick to his stomach.” Would he get a ban for saying that on Facebook?
Cursing, defined as: Referring to the target as genitalia or anus, including but not limited to: cunt, dick, asshole, Profane terms or phrases with the intent to insult, including but not limited to: fuck, bitch, motherfucker, Terms or phrases calling for engagement in sexual activity, or contact with genitalia, anus, feces or urine, including but not limited to: suck my dick, kiss my ass, eat shit
Profanity hasn’t specifically been banworthy in earlier versions of Facebook community standards. Otherwise, half my posts would have been taken down. Since they’re now reaching back and re-evaluating past posts, I’m not sure I’ll survive on the platform at all, much longer. I have tens of thousands of posts spanning over a decade, containing the word “fuck.”
Content targeting a person or group of people on the basis of their protected characteristic(s) with any of the following: Segregation in the form of calls for action, statements of intent, aspirational or conditional statements, or statements advocating or supporting segregation. Exclusion in the form of calls for action, statements of intent, aspirational or conditional statements, or statements advocating or supporting, defined as Explicit exclusion, which means things like expelling certain groups or saying they’re not allowed Political exclusion, which means denying the right to right to political participation Economic exclusion, which means denying access to economic entitlements and limiting participation in the labour market Social exclusion, which means things like denying access to spaces (physical and online)and social services Content that describes or negatively targets people with slurs, where slurs are defined as words that are inherently offensive and used as insulting labels for the above-listed characteristics.
For the following Community Standards, we require additional information and/or context to enforce: Do not post: Content explicitly providing or offering to provide products or services that aim to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Tier 3 seems straightforward enough. I’m especially gratified that Facebook is taking seriously the issue of gay conversion therapy and hate speech based around telling people they need to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Facebook definitely has had to make some tough calls, and in so doing, makes no pretense of either respecting the First Amendment, or being fair. So their community standards aren’t exactly reasonable. And their enforcement is spotty and selective. Being banned from one’s social group without warning or recourse is harsh. Especially when one’s intentions are laser focused on improving society. Rush Limbaugh’s death unquestionably made the world a better place. Given the amount of damage he did to both targeted groups and civility, what American in their right mind doesn’t think that Rush Limbaugh was both an idiot, and a traitor? You’d have to be mentally ill to disagree! Anyone who supports that blowhard, or was saddened by his death, makes me want to vomit.
I couldn’t write the above paragraph on Facebook, without risking a ban. And that’s a fucking problem, for the cause of justice.
On balance it’s good that there are now explicit prohibitions on hate speech. But by failing to distinguish between punching up and punching down, between hate and righteous indignation, they’ve tarred the just and the unjust, with the same brush.