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As we discussed in a recent post on “viral” content, Facebook’s (s fb) power and reach as a media platform has eclipsed even that of Google (s goog), which can be both good and bad depending on what kind of content you produce and whether Facebook approves of it or not. But that power becomes even more insidious when the network starts to delete important pieces of history, which it appears to be doing with pages related to dissident activity in Syria.
According to a piece in The Atlantic, Syrian activists and other observers of the conflict are growing increasingly concerned about pages disappearing, some of which have important information from non-violent activist groups and non-governmental organizations — both of which are a crucial source for Syrian citizens at a time when official media is censored and foreign media is not allowed.
“The social network’s recent decisions to shut down dozens of opposition pages, including the Kafranbel Media Center that Hamidou administered in exile, have dealt a significant blow to peaceful activists who have grown reliant on Facebook for communication and uncensored — if bloody and graphic — reporting on the war’s atrocities.”
As Atlantic writer Michael Pizzi points out, Facebook has bragged in the past about how influential it is in terms of global affairs, and how it gives ordinary citizens a voice against the powerful. In his letter to shareholders on the eve of the company’s IPO in 2012, founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote about how “by giving people people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible.”
Facebook says it tries not to delete content
Despite those inspiring words, however, the social network has routinely been criticized for censoring a wide variety of content — including photos of breast-feeding women — because it breaches one or another of its rules about offensive content. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written a number of times about how the network endangers the work of dissidents, and Facebook has been accused of being too friendly to repressive regimes like the Turkish government as well.
The British blogger Eliot Higgins, also known as Brown Moses, has become a self-taught expert on Syrian weaponry and tactics whose work is routinely cited by non-governmental organizations and mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times. He says the deletion of Syrian opposition pages by Facebook removes important data and context about the revolution there — including some crucial information about chemical weapon attacks last year.
Richard Allan — Facebook’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa — admitted to The Atlantic that the company’s page-deletion mechanisms aren’t perfect, and said the network is dealing with difficult questions when it comes to Syria, since what local sources believe is just news reporting could cross the line into offensive content. “There are situations where it’s very hard for us to get the rules just right,” he told the magazine.
A Facebook spokesman told me the network tries hard to balance issues like maintaining people’s safety in war-torn regions and keeping information associated with terrorist organizations off Facebook, while still allowing people to share newsworthy information even if it’s graphic.
“People are doing things we never even contemplated when Facebook was first created,” he said, adding that pages are only removed if they repeatedly violate standards. “Taking down a page is an extreme case, and it only happens after we give them plenty of options.”
Journalists say crucial info is being lost
That said, however, critics of the network’s decisions continue to point out that crucial information about the conflict is being lost. In addition to Brown Moses and the bloggers and activists The Atlantic spoke to, another critic of Facebook’s page deletions is Storyful — the Irish startup, recently acquired by News Corp., that specializes in verifying news reports from YouTube, Twitter and other forms of social media. According to a post by Felim McMahon on Google+, the deletions are having a major impact on the journalism that can be done and has been done about Syria.
“From a journalistic point of view, Facebook pages that helped Storyful corroborate some of the most important content from Syria have been removed from the public domain. Most alarming of all is the suggestion that there is little scrutiny of complaints that lead to the closures, and little recourse for those who find themselves censored.”
Pro-government entities such as the Syrian Electronic Army hacker group have bragged in the past about how they attack dissidents by reporting their pages to Facebook in order to have them removed. A Facebook spokesman said that the company doesn’t take down content based on who reports it or how many times it is reported, but only after a human being reviews the page for community standards, and that those whose pages are removed are free to try and create new pages that do meet those standards.
The giant social network is obviously trying to find some kind of middle ground between allowing dissidents to report on violent events without offending other users — but if nothing else, its ongoing inability to find that middle ground makes an important point about relying on proprietary platforms like Facebook. Censorship, whether real or inadvertent, is always a risk.