Do as I say, not as I do

Mark Zuckerberg champions free speech while Facebook censors it

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In the aftermath of the brutal killings of a dozen staff members at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last week, rallies in support of free speech sprang up across Europe and elsewhere, most featuring the slogan “Je Suis Charlie.” Among those who spoke out against the terrorists and championed the cause of free speech was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — but as some users have pointed out, his company’s policies often don’t live up to that commitment.

The Facebook co-founder posted a long statement on Friday, in which he talked about being the subject of a death threat from an Islamic extremist in Pakistan several years ago, because the social network wouldn’t ban material that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a way that offended him. But Zuckerberg said he didn’t back down, and added that he remains committed to free speech despite such threats:

“We stood up for this because different voices — even if they’re sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place. Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share.”

Content routinely removed

It didn’t take long before someone questioned the Facebook CEO on his commitment, however: when Zuckerberg posted a follow-up on Sunday night about the marches in Paris and elsewhere and the value of being connected, a reader noted that Facebook had removed a comment from a user in Pakistan that questioned the limits of free expression when it is used for racism or other offensive ideologies.

To his credit, the Facebook CEO said that the comment was likely removed in error, and he asked a Facebook staffer — vice-president Justin Osofsky — to look into it. Several hours later, as The Guardian noted in a post, Osofsky said that Facebook had made a mistake in removing the comment and that it would be reinstated:

Facebook comment screenshot

While that particular comment may have been removed in error, however, Facebook has become notorious for removing content of all kinds — in many cases without ever saying why it was removed. The social network seems to have a thing about breastfeeding photos, for example, which are still routinely removed, as well as content related to a number of dissident groups or anything that trips its standard filter for violence and other offensive content.

As many Facebook supporters like to point out, the company is a private entity and therefore isn’t bound by the First Amendment (which only applies to restrictions on free speech by the government), and it also has a duty to abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates, as Zuckerberg noted in his post. But the social network goes above and beyond those duties routinely, despite its founder’s rhetoric about the value of free speech.

Playing nice with governments

As Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins has pointed out, Facebook has removed posts and even entire pages created by dissident groups in Syria, many of which were designed to record the outcome of attacks by the army on innocent civilians — including some using chemical weapons. By removing those posts and pages, Higgins notes, Facebook has actually destroyed an important part of the historical record of criminal behavior by the Syrian government.

Facebook has also been accused of removing content related to dissident activity in China. And in a more recent example, the network removed content relating to a rally in Russia in support of opponents to President Vladimir Putin, after pressure from the Russian government. While Facebook is open to such pressure just as Google and other companies are, it’s interesting to look at the difference between how a company like Twitter responds to similar requests, compared with how Facebook does.

When Twitter was asked by the Pakistani government to remove access to posts that allegedly broke the law, it did so, but then reinstated them later after the government failed to convince the company that removing them was justified. And while Twitter has resisted attempts by the Turkish government to get information on dissidents who use the network or to block content the authorities don’t like, Turkey has boasted about its friendly relationship with Facebook.

Facebook can be a powerful force for free speech, as we saw during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, and I have no doubt that Zuckerberg is personally sincere when he champions the cause of free speech and not submitting to violent extremists. But the company is going to have to do a better job of following through on those principles in places like Turkey and Pakistan and Russia, if it wants to be believed.

12 Responses to “Mark Zuckerberg champions free speech while Facebook censors it”

  1. As of yesterday I was Locked Out of my account because I’m signed up under my real life nick name of Longshot and not real one. I won’t change name either. But now they want Photo ID and look at this list of documents they want, our choosing of giving. What are they Communists now.

    Option 1

    We will accept any government-issued ID that contains your name and date of birth. Examples include:

    Birth certificate
    Driver’s license
    Marriage certificate
    Official name change paperwork
    Personal or vehicle insurance card
    Non-driver’s government ID (ex: disability, SNAP card, national ID card)
    Green card, residence permit or immigration papers
    Voter ID card

    Option 2

    You can provide two different forms of ID from the following list (ex: a bank statement and a library card, but not two bank statements). The names on your IDs must match each other, and one of the IDs must include a photo or date of birth that matches the information on your profile.

    Below are some examples of IDs we’ll accept:

    Bank statement
    Bus card
    Credit card
    Employment verification
    Library card
    Magazine subscription stub
    Medical record
    Membership ID (ex: pension card, union membership, work ID, professional ID)
    Paycheck stub
    School card
    School record
    Social Security card
    Utility bill
    Yearbook photo (actual scan or photograph of the page in your yearbook)

    Option 3

    If you don’t have an ID that shows your authentic name as well as your photo or date of birth, you can provide two forms of ID from Option 2 above, and then provide a government ID that includes a date of birth or photo that matches the information on your profile. We won’t add the name or other information from the government ID to your account.

    Not changing name and certainly not giving them any of my my private personal business.

    Insane and absurd.

  2. james-12

    He may support free speech but he refuses to let all of a users Facebook contacts see all their posts in their main feed and vice versa. To a degree he is censoring much of what users want to post .

  3. grady harmon jr

    I’m so happy Mark stands for free speech. However anyone who knows anything about this guy should know he is a big time secular progressive. These people wrote the book on untruths. Look know further than the white house. An administration he very much supports by the way.

  4. asharbaig

    “Free Speech” is a very broad and very dangerous term. We are “free” or protected by our constitution about saying anything we want but God has also blessed us with the intellect to think if our “free” speech or expression will cause harm, emotional or physical damage and even worst – loss of human life. Freedom of speech can include criticism, disagreement or even rejection of faiths or ideology… but should not and must not allow “insult”. One should not yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre because the resulting panic can cause injuries or death. Muslims hold the highest regard for their prophet. He is never depicted in movies or books (whiles Jesus Christ is frequently). He forbid that due to a simple reason that he did not want his followers to become idol worshipers and start worshiping images or statues of him. Hence, someone publishing cartoons about a white man [email protected]%!## prophet Mohammad definitely crosses the line of free speech and is an act of provocation that resulted in loss of hundreds of lives around the globe. The French and Danish cartoonist were “free” to produce and publish those cartoons but in their quest for publicity they forgot the very basics of journalistic integrity. Their publication typically sold 30k copies and therefore were not even a household name in France. Now they are famous – or infamous. Their actions resulted in an irreplaceable loss of hundreds of lives, including their own. Therefore, we should revisit and fix its definition of “freedom of speech.” “Free Speech” is great but in the hands of intellectually inferior people, it can be very dangerous. By expressing my opinions above, I by no means condone the heinous murder of Charlie Hebdo employees. Islam is a peaceful religion and no muslim has the right to take innocent lives in the name “defending” their prophet.
    PS: The opinions expressed in this post are strictly my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or an any affiliate.

    • “Therefore, “Free Speech” is great but in the hands of intellectually inferior people, it can be very dangerous.” What is intellectual inferiority, and who are the intellectually inferior people you’re referring to? I don’t disagree with your comments here, it’s just that a definition would be useful.

      • asharbaig

        As I mentioned in my post, the definition of intellectually inferior journalists would be the ones who do not grasp and respect the journalistic integrity and provoke and insult and provoke a religion or nation or a group. Journalism is a privilege that bares intense responsibility. The irresponsibility of Intellectually inferior journalists can result in hatred and even loss of hundreds of lives. There is no one group I am pointing my finger to but just raising the issue that the road to “free speech” should be paved with responsibility and intellect.

  5. I don’t think Facebook as a company is against free speech. They have to obey certain local guidelines for operating in a country. Besides they also have to make sure that one persons right to speech doesn’t bother another persons right to privacy.

  6. I am actually not able to get any pictures of the new Charlie Hebdo cover to show up on my Facebook news feed. The local radio station here posted it and it never showed up on anybody’s feed.

    If they are all about not censoring people now, it looks like they lied again.

  7. The use of real names was a free speech issue in the end too,
    In is interesting to note that FB censors what it considers inappropriate by it’s standards ,Western world standards but they don’t do so with what might be inappropriate in other cultures.
    I am no expert but chances are that those cartoons are more inappropriate than hardcore porn for many.
    This shows and encourages a certain lack of tolerance and respect for other cultures.
    A lot of hate and discrimination goes towards a certain religion and certain countries (like China) while in the US xenophobia is pretty much the only form of discrimination that doesn’t get much attention , sometimes is even encouraged (except when it comes to Israel). Even the vast majority of the press needs to be reminded about the concept of tolerance and that they need to try to understand another culture and the social norm.
    We are very quick to judge everything through reality but that’s not always all that wise.
    It’s easy to look at the US and say are barbaric nutjobs that shoot each other and even have the death penalty. It’s not very different from how the US judges punishments from adultery in some countries. And here i might get some people mad by comparing adultery with rape. The harm in both cases is emotional and the magnitude of that is mostly dependent on education. Even in the west some people kill themselves because of adultery but in general it’s not causing catastrophic harm and not punished by law.At the same time rape is one of the most horrible crimes and punished accordingly. However, that’s the case in our culture and ,from a logic point of view, it makes sense if adultery was a crime in some cultures that value marriage differently and where it causes major psychological harm. It’s a difference of perception. We never really make much of an effort to look at things through a different lens. Even if after doing so we end up judging that culture’s actions as still wrong, it should at the very least help us understand better.
    There are major differences even in our own culture. If you ask people that are computer literate and bellow 40 about porn (or nudity) ,you ‘ll have a very very different answer than from the older generation. Just recently a British football team was banned for being sponsored by Pornhub while the students had no problem with that at all ( here there is even a pool about it and 3 quarters of the voters don’t agree with the ban ). When it comes to nudity FB and most American corporations are out of tune with their users just because of some religious extremists.
    How FB or any other global company should handle free speech is a rather difficult question.If you censor anything you need to respect at least all major cultures or censor just at the intersection of those cultures, or not at all. And ofc you also have laws, blasphemy is oddly still a crime in many places (some just on paper).
    So FB should certainly try to understand tolerance and respect for other cultures, understand that they are global and then decide on a strategy. Would be preferable if they actually support free speech but hoping for that is a bit unrealistic.