The internet court of no appeal
How social media firms are policing everything we say
One day before he was made a Minister of State in the Department for Culture Media and Sport, John Whittingdale told The Critic in a interview that “the power of Facebook and the impact it’s having on other news providers is a matter of concern” He said he was worried that “Facebook have this power and are pretty unaccountable” and said he had recently experienced the powerlessness of a constituent who had just been banned with no appeal.
In January Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a new direction for the social media giant. To applause from the audience, he told the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Utah that it makes him feel “really uncomfortable” that Facebook is being asked to censor “a lot of different kinds of content”, adding: “It kind of feels like the list of things that you’re not allowed to say socially keeps on growing and I’m not really ok with that.”
The billionaire said the social media giant had decided to stand up for free expression and that “the line needs to be held at some point”. He conceded that the move would “piss off a lot of people” but said the current approach was already “pissing off a lot of people too, so let’s try something different”.
Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t say who keeps asking the platform to censor content but it’s likely some of the pressure is coming from his own staff. In December 2015 he personally intervened to prevent Facebook banning the (then) presidential candidate Donald Trump after staff felt that he had violated its content standards by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
But Facebook has a long way to go if it wants to stand up for free speech. The platform has a culture of blocking first and answering questions later (or not responding as the case often is) – Which also includes blocking links within private messages. The reason for a blocked link is often unclear but the most likely trigger seems to be if Facebook’s artificial intelligence think something is bad based on keywords and association to banned content, or the balance is tipped after enough people have complained about the content – (regardless of any breaches of the rules). The capacity for even a handful of determined individuals to game Facebook’s unthinking algorithms is well established.
In July last year the Catholic Herald revealed Facebook had designated an innocuous quote by St Augustine as ‘hate speech’ and removed users from seeing it. Facebook user Domenico Bettinelli had shared the quote as a test after noticing two two priests had had the same quote flagged by the social media giant. Bettinelli asked for a review of the decision by a human but was told that Facebook’s decision remained the same. The social media giant only admitted their ‘error’ and restored the quote after they were contacted by a journalist.
More recently, Facebook banned anybody from sharing links to pro unionist blog ‘Chokkablog’ after the author Kevin Hague
penned an article arguing that the SNP’s economic case for independence was flawed. The content was blocked from being shared publicly and in private messages. In this case it seems likely that numerous complaints from pro-independence Scots was enough to trigger a ban on the entire blog, not just the specific article. But after asking Facebook to explain itself four times, Hague did not receive a response and the ban stayed in place. Again, Facebook only unblocked the link after being contacted by the media, in this case The Critic. They told me it had been blocked in error by their automated system as ”suspected spam” but refused to comment on why several attempts to have the ban listed went unanswered.
Back in June 2019 Facebook banned several “dangerous individuals” from the platform and said it would remove groups, pages, and accounts set up to represent them. The list included conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, host of pro-Trump website InfoWars, its UK editor Paul Joseph Watson and ex-Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos who were all accused of hate speech.
But Facebook didn’t stop there: In July last year Facebook changed its terms of service which specifically allowed users to post statements of intent to commit high-severity violence against the private citizens (deemed dangerous individuals) it had removed the month before.
This meant users were specifically permitted to threaten people like Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulos on Facebook, but nobody else.
They have since removed this section of the policy.
Despite Facebook’s self-flagellation over the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, the platform often strays into the politics of other countries – potentially at the behest of the US government. In 2017 Facebook deleted the Instagram and Facebook accounts of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov after the US imposed travel and economic sanctions on him over allegations of human rights abuses. At the time Facebook told the New York Times it had a “legal obligation” to do so now he was on a US sanctions list. But that legal obligation did not appear to extend to other key individuals on US sanctions lists, including the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Guatemalan congressman Julio Antonio Juárez.
Jennifer Granick, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union told the Guardian that the law was clearly targeted at economic activity but was “being applied to an entirely different category to suppress speech.”
But if Facebook is apparently turning over a new leaf, Twitter’s direction of travel has only been in one direction. The micro-blogging site once branded itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and said it took a “neutral” view of tweets posted by users because of the company’s founding principles.
Not so anymore.
In 2016 tech journalist Sarah Jeong documented Twitter’s incremental rules changes over seven years from a libertarian’s dream to censorship central. In an article for Vice, she concluded: “Twitter talked some big talk, but it has buckled under both lawsuits and media outrage, tweaking and changing the Rules around speech whenever something threatened its bottom line”.
Today ‘Twitter Jail’ is common parlance for users who have fallen foul of the censors and been locked out of their accounts for a period of time. And it is a busy place in a network of 330 million active users. Recently Guido Fawkes blogger Tom Harwood who has 62,000 followers was locked out of his account for 12 hours and forced to delete a tweet calling for the police to use tasers on climate protesters who had illegally closed roads.
Harwood got his account back but users with fewer followers are not so lucky. Twitter is awash with people announcing the creation of a new account because their old one had been permanently blocked by the social media giant. I spoke to a Lincolnshire man in his 50s who had his account locked for calling on members of the UK Government to “hang your heads in shame” because Twitter said it was promoting suicide.
* * * *
Alistair Williams is a stand up comedian who, perversely, was forced to rely on tech giants for his income after being censored in real life. In the height of the Brexit crisis he posted his ‘Brexit Burger King’ sketch which described Brexit as if it were a group of people trying to leave Burger King with their female leader doing everything she could to stop them. After the clip went viral and was shared by Brexit-backing MPs like Steve Baker, Williams found his work on the comedy circuit dried up and he was forced to go online to make money.
But in a sign of how zealous censorship is exacerbating the culture war, Williams is now being pushed out of YouTube who keep censoring and de-monitising his content, often branding his videos – in which he mocks Labour MPs like Jess Phillips – as ‘hate speech’.
One video he uploaded which was blocked for this reason included a clip of Nigel Farage speaking in the European Parliament. When he asked YouTube which part of the video was offensive, they declined to reply. The harassment is unsurprisingly making him more convinced that there is a conspiracy against anyone who speaks out against the values of Silicon Valley.
The free-market solution when having trouble with a private company is to set up your own. Guido’s Tom Harwood, for example, believes Twitter is free to censor whatever it likes but that “imbalanced disciplinary procedures” could lead to them losing market share and eventually failing as a company.
He said: “There is a social expectation for big companies to do good in the world, and many brands do without government cajolement. The right should not believe that the only way to exert pressure on a company is through state action.”
But Williams thinks this idea is nonsense and suggests if Thames Water turned off the supply to somebody’s home on a whim – the occupants might not be sympathetic to the suggestion that they could always set up a rival firm.
Frustrated with repeatedly being blocked, Williams has been uploading his videos to BitChute – an alternative video platform – but has yet to discover if he can make any money from it. For now Williams can only do ‘livestreams’ on YouTube – real time broadcasts where he can earn hundreds of pounds a session from fans sending him money – but the comedian is still heavily reliant on a service which he believes is actively trying to remove his main source of income.
Unsurprisingly the alternative social media sites to Facebook and Twitter are largely unknown and their user base contains many people kicked out of mainstream sites, which makes for a fairly partisan echo-chamber. ‘Gab’, for example was launched in 2017 and uses the ‘Pepe the frog meme’ as its logo, which is popular with Trump supporters and the so-called ‘alt-right’.
Just as the right more broadly has failed to compete with the prestige of ‘lost’ established institutions, by, for example, setting up new universities, so too are they losing in the actual marketplace. Does this matter? Not in pristine libertarian theory. But in practice? Yes, inescapably. As I may, or may not be allowed to tell you on Facebook later.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe