How Centralized Social Media are Forced to Censor Content: Facebook Case


Key takeaways:

  • Advertisers boycott Facebook for allegedly facilitating hate speech following Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to moderate Donald Trump’s post.
  • Facebook is under increasing pressure to revise its content moderation policies.
  • Centralized social networks are vulnerable to external pressure when it comes to moderation. This can potentially lead to infringement of freedom of speech, with Facebook being a case in point.

Since June, the world’s largest social network Facebook has been under constant barrage of criticism from advertisers, with a slew of major advertisers announcing they will boycott the company. The reason behind such hostile attitudes toward Facebook lies in the media platform’s unsatisfactory content moderation policies.

This conflict apparently testifies to the vulnerability of centralized social networks to political pressure. Forklog took a deeper dive into the situation to investigate how the fight for equality can potentially violate one of the main liberal values—freedom of speech.

Trump derangement syndrome: boycott and loathing

“Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.”

With this announcement, an array of social justice organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Color of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Free Press, Common Sense and Sleeping Giants, launched the Stop Hate for Profit campaign.

They argue that Facebook has long been facilitating the spread of disinformation and hate speech.

To combat Facebook’s reluctance to censor, activists behind the initiative called on large companies to suspend advertising on the social network as advertising revenue supposedly accounts for the greatest share of Facebook’s revenue.

“We have been continually disappointed and stunned by Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to protecting white supremacy, voter suppression and outright lies on Facebook. As corporations take a stand against racism in our society, they should consider how their advertising dollars support Facebook making Black people less safe online,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change. 

Dozens of the world’s leading companies have supported the Stop Hate for Profit initiative, with Pepsi, Starbucks, Levi Strauss, Unilever being among them. Even Disney, Facebook’s largest advertiser in the first half of 2020, joined the boycott.

However, the social media giant doesn’t seem to change its content moderation policies following the protest.

“We make policy changes based on principles, not revenue pressures,” a Facebook spokesperson stressed in a conversation with Business Insider.

The boycott campaign was triggered by the protests against police violence, which erupted in the United States and some other countries after a white police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man.

The riots began at the end of May. In response to the civil unrest in Minneapolis, U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned a possibility of using the Military against the protesters.

I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the…

Posted by Donald J. Trump on 2020 m. gegužės 28 d., ketvirtadienis


Many saw this as a call to violence. Social media platform Twitter flagged a similar post by Trump as “abusive behavior,” explaining that it violated its rules regarding the “glorification of violence.” Yet the platform decided not to remove it, since it “may be in the public’s interest to remain accessible.”

Facebook not only remained ignorant to the post, but also Mark Zuckerberg said that the President’s statement did not violate the rules of the social network.

This has been an incredibly tough week after a string of tough weeks. The killing of George Floyd showed yet again that…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on 2020 m. gegužės 29 d., penktadienis


“We read it as a warning about state action,” said Zuckerberg. “We think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.” 

Zuckerberg also stressed that reinforcing and facilitating freedom of speech is in the interests of Facebook:

“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”

Zuckerberg’s stance caused a wave of criticism of Facebook’s management followed by a rising chorus of indignation from the company’s employees, who eventually staged a “virtual walkout”.

At a meeting with disgruntled employees, Zuckerberg asserted that he considered many of Trump’s posts offensive, but would not subject them to moderation.

Later, Zuckerberg met with the team behind Stop Hate for Profit, who put forward a number of demands in regard to changes in Facebook’s policy, including the introduction of civil rights expertise in the company’s C-Suite.

However, the activists were left disappointed as Facebook failed to make any firm commitments to the demands. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said: “The meeting that we just left was a disappointment. At this point, we were expecting a very clear answer to the demands we are making, and we did not get that.”

In the wake of the events, a group of independent auditors conducted an audit of Facebook’s civil rights policies and issued a dedicated report.

Civil Rights Audit by ForkLog on Scribd

The auditors concluded that although Facebook had improved content moderation over time, those improvements were still insufficient to protect users from discriminatory and hateful posts.

“The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling to the Auditors,” the report said.

From social justice to censorship and intolerance

Some fear that the ongoing struggle for racial, gender and social equality will lead not only to intolerance and censorship, but to the erosion of free speech as well.

In July, more than 150 writers, academics, journalists and public figures signed an open letter defending the diversity of thought and calling for open debate.

Among the signatories were linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, writers J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, chess player Garry Kasparov and many others.

The authors of the letter claimed to be staunch opponents of discrimination, however, expressed concerns that “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

They warned that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture.”

In their opinion, “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” the letter reads.

The corporate boycott of Facebook is an example of censorship and can be recognized as an attempt of a mob to destroy free speech, according to venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale.

Although Lonsdale claimed his support for the protests in their fight for justice, he noted that the advertisers’ boycott happened because “they think the company isn’t censoring its users enough.”

“Their statements imply that Americans are not to be trusted with intellectual freedom. This abandons the principle that a marketplace of ideas gradually tends toward truth and progress,” Joe Lonsdale said.

The problem of centralized social networks

Some experts suspect that Zuckerberg’s reluctance to moderate the president’s scandalous posts may be caused not by his commitment to freedom of speech, but by some direct agreements with Trump himself.

One of Facebook’s early investors, Roger McNamey, told The New York Times that the deal between Trump and Zuckerberg most likely considers protecting the company from regulators. In return, the Trump administration allegedly gets “lenient treatment” from the social media platform “to win the election.”

“Mark’s deal with Trump is highly utilitarian,” McNamey said. “It’s basically about getting free rein and protection from regulation. Trump needs Facebook’s thumb on the scale to win this election.”

In June, Facebook did remove some of the ads posted by the Trump administration. Those ads contained an image of red downward-pointing triangles, which, according to some commentators, resembled a symbol associated with the Nazis.

Notably, Trump issued an executive order “on preventing online censorship.” The order argues that “if an online platform restricted access to some content posted by others, it would thereby become a “publisher” of all the content posted on its site for purposes of torts such as defamation.” Thus, such “publishers” can not enjoy the protections granted by the section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act.

“When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power.  They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators,” the executive order claims.

However, when it comes to freedom of speech, it may not even be that important who eventually influences the content—authorities or an intolerant society. The core idea lies in the ability of centralized social networks to decide which content is acceptable and which is not.

For instance, after a recent Twitter hack, the platform temporarily prohibited publishing any information about cryptocurrency wallets, supposedly aiming to deter hackers.

Censorship of cryptocurrency-related content on social media platforms often happens without a clear reason.

In December 2019, online video sharing platform YouTube blocked hundreds of crypto-related videos due to a “moderation error.” In February 2020, several video bloggers were blocked by the platform after publishing videos about Bitcoin, with some of them receiving bans during live streams.

Decentralized social networks could become a response to censorship, as well as to other known issues of centralized platforms such as user privacy violations.

The blockchain industry has been developing alternative services to centralized social media platforms, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced his intention to create a decentralized standard for social media.

In March 2020, the community launched the #ForkGoogle campaign against Google’s non-transparent policies and #fExit geared toward diversifying people’s experience in the sphere of social networks.

The main goals of the #fExit initiative are to reclaim the control over users’ personal information, transfer community management into the hands of their members, reward users’ intellectual work through algorithms, and work towards a fair distribution of monetization through ad revenue.

In July, blockchain company launched the Voice social network platform based on the EOSIO protocol. The Voice’s main features so far include mandatory verification and content monetization, with users able to gain tokens.

The development of decentralized social media platforms is still in its early stages. Nevertheless, in light of increasing pressure on free speech, the need for open and censorship-free discussion platforms is becoming more evident.

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