Headless in the Garden – Facebook & Free Speech

It turns out this is Free Speech Week, although I doubt this fact had anything to do with the timing of Facebook’s recent dustup over its decision to allow videos of beheadings on its pages. On Monday, it was reported that executives at Facebook had decided to lift a previously imposed ban on sharing videos that depict actual beheadings committed by terrorists and gangsters. The company almost immediately reversed this decision in response to what appears to have been universal revulsion by users. Of course, our disgust doesn’t mean sharing these videos is not a matter of free speech, but neither is it a First Amendment issue simply because Facebook says it is.  Regardless, the story raises some of the cultural and/or legal questions inherent in our relationship to social media, so it’s an interesting topic after we all agree that almost none of us wishes to see, let alone have our kids stumble upon, a video of someone being decapitated.

The first question it seems we grapple with is whether the company that owns a site like Facebook does or does not bear responsibility for the content we users post on its walls. In principle, if the site establishes any rules governing content at all — and they wouldn’t get far in most countries if they didn’t — then the very existence of said rules implies responsibility.  Facebook, for instance, does not allow nudity to be posted, and the reason is obvious; there are simply too many ways to run afoul of existing laws pertaining to obscenity or to sexuality and minors. Every teenager posting a naked selfie would be a legal entanglement for the company. Yet, it’s easy to wonder why it matters when minors are a mouseclick away from being exposed to every kind of pornography outside the walled garden of Facebook.  While executives at the company are not entirely wrong that protecting kids from exposure to horrific images is a job for parents, our voluntary presence and activity on the site is a bit like entering a shopping mall where the landlords are allowed to turn our interaction into revenue.  As such, it isn’t really public space.  If I put a bunch of violently offensive posters on the walls in my local shopping center, I could be arrested; but the mall owners could easily be sued if they chose to leave the posters up on the grounds that I was exercising my right of free expression.  This argument would never fly in physical space, and it doesn’t appear to work so well in virtual space either.

The attitude of most site owners tends toward a laissez faire approach to content shared or created by users; and this is legitimately understandable given the slippery nature of trying to define protected vs. restricted speech.  Still, I suspect the primary motivations are financial rather than ideological.  When one is in the business of monetizing traffic, it’s simply easier not to care what drives that traffic.  But when thousands or millions of users dog-pile onto some content or activity that is truly depraved, we do have to decide whether we’re okay with allowing the walled gardens of social media to become new Coliseums of grotesque spectacle.  From anecdotal observation, it seems most users are not okay with this and that they do want to hold site owners accountable.   When Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned in the U.K. for Jane Austen to appear on British bank notes, she received  a deluge of death and rape threats via Twitter. The company was ultimately forced to respond to public demand for greater capacity to report and mitigate abuses through the social network.

With regard to the decapitation videos, Facebook tried to play the pubic service card, claiming that people were sharing a particular beheading video “in order to condemn it, but one must ask to what end?  So we can put those pro-beheading folks in their place?  There is a persistent conceit that the Internet brings us realities from around the world that traditional news media does not deliver and that we are thus able to confront hard truths head-on and address them. Sometimes, this is the case, but often it’s just bullshit.  Nothing, for example, will happen as a result of 20,000 or 200,000 people watching a video of a gangster or a terrorist beheading someone except that a majority of viewers will wish they hadn’t seen it, and a small number of viewers  will anesthetize their senses to a medieval form of murder.  What possible social value would Facebook’s perhaps-too-insulated executives imagine coming from allowing these videos?  What is anyone meant to learn that would manifest as some action we might take?  Absent a good answer to those questions, one must conclude that the motivation is spectacle itself.

Certainly I believe free speech is the most sacred right to be preserved in a free society, and in order to protect this right, most of us understand that we must defend it absolutely even for expressions we find offensive.  It seems, however, that those who presume to lead in the digital age would expand this principle to include all transactions made through these technologies, even when there is technically no speaker and nothing being said.  This is perhaps a byproduct of labeling all user-provided substance with the generic content.  A rape-threat tweet or a poem are the same thing, measured only by the attention they attract.  It is comforting to see that plenty of so-called users have not quite bought this rationale.  So, Happy Free Speech Week!

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