Facebook and Censorship: Misunderstandings and Assumptions

19 Apr

The Kiss That Launched 1,000 Assumptions

The Internet, especially its social media tools, is a powerful force. In the best of circumstances, it allows a free, fairly public platform for exchanges of ideas and dissemination of information. In the worst of circumstances, however, it is the fastest way for misinformation to take on the appearance of reality. Take, for example, the Myth of the Censored Facebook Event.

A quick recap: As we reported here at TSM, the owners of the John Snow pub in London removed two gay men for kissing in their establishment. That was clearly wrong and resulted in a flurry of righteous outrage including a kiss-in outside the pub. Activist Paul Shelter organized the event on Facebook. Dangerous Minds publicized the event using a photo from the show Eastenders; their writer Richard Metzger posted that photo to Facebook to help publicize the event. Apparently, Facebook received a complaint and removed the photo. Metzger was angry that a fairly innocent picture was censored and wrote a piece in Dangerous Minds. Sadly, this is where things went viral and wrong.

Metzger noted that the Facebook page for the kiss-in was no longer available. He made an unfortunate assumption (at least implicitly) and linked that event to the removal of the picture from his page, resulting in an online firestorm against Facebook for their supposed homophobic behavior. As it turns out:

  • Paul Shelter, the kiss-in organizer, made the Facebook event private after the actual kiss-in ended because trolls were leaving very hostile comments. The reason he went private with the event is very sad, but it is not Facebook’s fault in any direct way.
  • Facebook appears to have a “delete first and investigate later” policy when anyone complains about content. This is still a bit vague, but everything I’ve been able to substantiate points to this. Since some content could be truly offensive or dangerous, this is an aggressive but somewhat understandable system, especially since
  • Facebook did investigate the picture and restore it with an apology to Metzger. The social media giant has a policy and a procedure and followed both of them. You can disagree with the policy and even lobby Facebook to change it, but don’t use an extreme example of one thing to assume a broad pattern of behavior without proof.

This is the peril of the world of too-fast information and not enough research. Metzger posed a fairly bold hypothetical in his piece, the comments page went wild with it, and in days the myth that Facebook deleted the kiss-in was everywhere. I have to confess, when I saw Metzger’s original article and sensed the brewing storm, it seemed like an over-reaction. It turns out I was right.

It is all too easy to make quick assumptions and share them everywhere these days. That’s very dangerous and can lead to outright lies becoming part of the fabric of the Internet. We are conditioned by our online tools to expect fast answers when just a little patience would give us the truth. When you read something, engage with the text; question the assumptions; consider the source. The interconnected nature of social media can create great change for good (just look at Egypt), but it can also spread confusion. When you hit “share” be sure you are part of the positive change and not just another part of the noise.

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4 Responses to “Facebook and Censorship: Misunderstandings and Assumptions”

  1. Karen April 19, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    I am so pleased that you posted all of these details here. I was curious about the whole story when friends started posting the picture with comments that we all should post it to our pages. Without more information about the facts it felt like adding fuel to the fire before we knew how much energy output we needed. I do worry that many folks in our culture rush to assume the hype (good or bad) is true without verifying the story.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt April 19, 2011 at 8:22 am #

      That is one of the wonderful things about being married to a librarian–have to have all the facts in order!

  2. webwordwarrior April 19, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Thank you for the reminder that we must not leap to conclusions or cast blame without information. I’m not a fan of Facebook at all, but it does seem they’re pretty clear about their (frequently shifting) policies and practices.

  3. J November 28, 2016 at 5:29 pm #

    Facebook may not be openly anti-LGBT, but it’s “censor and block first, ask later” policy is completely unexcusable. On several occasions I’ve had my comments removed for calling out bigotry and false statements even though nobody (other than religious conservatives) would ever agree with such censorship. If Facebook is “neutral” in situations of oppression, then it takes the side of the oppressor. So yes, I blame Facebook for their gross negligence.

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