Last week I watched a shocking video of bombs falling in Aleppo in Syria. Children were left dead or maimed, husbands cradled their dead wives while in the street old men screamed at the sky. I cried. I was viewing the video on Facebook. So I pressed share and wrote a heartfelt plea to my community to watch the footage that can not be seen on commercial media. My Facebook community is highly responsive to everything, so it caught my attention when only one person reacted to the video. When I went looking through my feed, the video has disappeared.
A deleted post might not seem like a big deal, but it’s not the first time that things that are political or difficult to watch have disappeared from my timeline, or have not appeared in my friends feeds after I have shared them. Got me thinking about how much our online social networks are censored or engineered.
Three days ago I was met with an onslaught of panicked posts as I opened my news and twitter apps. News companies were having public anxiety attacks over Facebook changing their algorithm to favour friends over news. Apparently many media companies had changed their business models over the years to depend almost completely on Facebook for distribution.
The public isn’t always right — and that’s the Facebook algorithm’s fatal flaw for journalists – Medium https://t.co/jNgyrUgcby
— Paul Bradshaw (@paulbradshaw) October 1, 2016
— Aliah D. Wright (@1SHRMScribe) September 20, 2016
Then today blew up twitter and news feeds with another Facebook censorship story. Facebook is accused to deleting the accounts and stories of several Palestinian journalists. Al Jazeera detailed the accounts involved and the apology by Facebook, ‘Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake.’Hyatt (2016) Al Jazeera suggested a reason for Facebook’s involvement in the deletion of many Palestinian journalist’s account may have a legal answer.
‘Over the summer, an Israeli legal advocacy group – connected to the Israeli army and intelligence agencies -filed a $1bn lawsuit against Facebook claiming the company was violating the US Anti-Terrorism Act by providing services that assist groups in “recruiting, radicalising and instructing terrorists.’
This is not a Facebook only censorship issue, as referred to by digital freedom advocate Rebecca MacKinnon in her TED talk ‘Let’s take back the internet’, it’s is symptomatic of the issues that occur when a corporate body is given the role of public governance when there is a monetary interest at the fore. McKinnon also shows how living in China for much of her career as CNN Beijing Bureau chief and time spent studying Taiwan as a Fullbright scholar which has increased her understanding of censorship of the internet as a new problem of the global society as it departs from the sovereign state.
‘We have a situation where private companies are applying censorship standards that are often quite arbitrary and generally more narrow than the free speech constitutional standards that we have in democracies. Or they’re responding to censorship requests by authoritarian regimes that do not reflect consent of the governed. Or they’re responding to requests and concerns by governments that have no jurisdiction over many, or most, of the users and viewers who are interacting with the content in question.
So here’s the situation. In a pre-Internet world, sovereignty over our physical freedoms, or lack thereof, was controlled almost entirely by nation-states. But now we have this new layer of private sovereignty in cyberspace. And their decisions about software coding, engineering, design, terms of service all act as a kind of law that shapes what we can and cannot do with our digital lives. And their sovereignties, cross-cutting, globally interlinked, can in some ways challenge the sovereignties of nation-states in very exciting ways, but sometimes also act to project and extend it at a time when control over what people can and cannot do with information has more effect than ever on the exercise of power in our physical world.’Mackinnon, R (2011)
Benjamin Jackson raises the same issue in his article ‘Censorship and freedom of expression in the age of Facebook’, explaining that social media companies are presenting something of a conundrum as private companies are not covered by the 1st Amendment (USA), ‘The prospect of censorship on social network websites is especially troubling because it is unclear whether the First Amendment provides any protections for communications on social network websites.’ Jackson (2014, p.121)
Facebook’s mission states their mission as,
But, being a global private company, just like it’s peers—such as Google—they are under no real obligation to create a space where information is truly free. Meeting a need for end users and other stake holders while staying financially viable would be of the up most importance. Facebook like Google is not a democracy…they are a private companies. As with anything new in our world the legislation is retroactive. Possibly that places ‘us’ the users in a powerful position to make our voice heard and press for a level of censorship (or no censorship) that everyone is comfortable with. Either that or wait for the separate sovereign states to exert their control on a technology who’s greatest benefit and vision was the free exchange of information on a global level.
I’ll finish with a quote from a journal article by Sadja Qureshi speaking on the possibilities of networking to empower people,
‘Access to other individuals with similar thoughts and ideas is made possible through the Internet. Combined with the power of social networks and cellphones, people can have access to the people and resources they need to go about achieving better livelihoods. The social revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and the Occupy Wall Street movement that went global, illustrate how these networks of change are enabling information to be disseminated instantaneously, transforming perceptions of the world we live in. Castells (2012) states that “when societies fail in managing their structural crises by the existing institutions, change can only take place… by a transformation of power relations that starts in people’s minds” (p. 228). He adds that the Internet is a “privileged platform for the social construction of autonomy.” This means that individuals can define their actions around projects that meet their values, and interests independently of social institutions (Castells, 2012).’ Qureshi (2013, p.98)
Carr, M 2013 ‘Internet freedom human rights power’, Australian Journal of International Affairs’, vol.67, no.5, p.p.621-637
Hyatt, S 2106, ‘Facebook ‘blocks accounts’ of Palestinian journalists’, Al Jazeera, 26 September 2016, viewed 3 October 2016, <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/facebook-blocks-accounts-palestinian-journalists-160925095126952.html>
Jackson, B 2014, ‘Censorship and freedom of expression in the age of Facebook’, New Mexico Law Review, vol.44, no.1, p.p. 121-168
MacKinnon, R 2011, Let’s take back the internet, video, TED, July 2011, viewed 2 Oct 2016, <https://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_mackinnon_let_s_take_back_the_internet?language=en>
Qureshi, S 2013, ‘Networks of change, shifting power from institutions to people: how are innovations in the use of information and communication technology transforming development?’, Information Technology for Development, vol.19, no.2, p.p. 97-99