The Editors: It is time to curb the power of Facebook

Photo Credit: StockCatalog on Flickr under CC licence

It is generally bad media practice to write about yourself, and here at Gript, we try to avoid it. There are, however, occasions when it becomes necessary, to illustrate a broader point.

Yesterday morning, the Editorial Team at Gript received a communication from Facebook. Our Facebook page – with 42,000 followers – was, we were told, in danger of being closed down. The reason given was “repeated violations of Facebook’s content policies”, with the latest infraction relating to a post Gript had published in late July of 2020. Further, our page was restricted, meaning that only a small fraction of our followers would see our content:

Before addressing the post in question, some necessary background: In the past, Gript has run afoul of Facebook’s content team on four or five occasions. On each such occasion, we have appealed the finding, and been successful. Nevertheless, those “infractions” – even though they were overturned, apparently count against us.

The latest one, then, needs some explanation.

Last July, as part of our “On this Day” series, we published a short piece about the etymology of the phrase “The Hun” – a derogatory nickname for German soldiers during the World Wars. You can read it here.

That piece included, as its banner image, a photograph of German soldiers during World War One.

The piece does not advocate for the German Empire, soldiery, war, or anything else.

Nevertheless, we were told, it violates Facebook’s content policy against “promoting hateful individuals or organisations”. Clearly, since we were neither trying to promote the German armed forces of the Victorian era, or any individual within them, the classification of our post as a violation is a mistake. Perhaps some over-zealous moderator looked at the image of German soldiers from World War One, and mixed them up with Nazi stormtroopers? That would be historically illiterate, but perhaps an understandable mistake from a recent graduate assigned to moderate content.

Naturally enough, we moved to appeal this latest restriction on our content, too, since it is clearly absurd. This was the result:

In other words, we cannot appeal. We have been sanctioned for reporting an entirely harmless historical fact, on the basis that it “promotes a hateful organisation”, which is not identified, and have no recourse to justice.

It is important to say here that Gript is not the only organisation in this position. Due to the ubiquity of Facebook, and the range of businesses which have built their brands by accessing an audience that only Facebook can deliver, the company has the literal power to take away people’s livelihoods and shutter their businesses.

In many cases, this power rests in the hands of a computer algorithm. In other cases, it is placed in the hands of young people, fresh out of college, who are asked to make permanent judgements about people’s ability to run their businesses based on criteria which are not transparent, or always applied equally.

As an Editorial group, we do recognise the importance of editing. Nobody would argue that Facebook is obliged to carry content which is clearly hateful, or obviously intended to incite hatred or violence. The problem arises when those judgements are marginal, and the criteria are not clear.

Governments the world over have abdicated their own responsibility to decide what free speech actually means, in the twenty first century, and handed that power, and responsibility, over to private companies, many of whom are effective monopolies. The result is that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon are effectively as big a threat to the operation of any business or political campaign as any hostile Government department might be. The Revenue Commissioners, after all, might issue a fine. Amazon or Google can put you out of business. You can take the Revenue Commissioners to court. You cannot do that with one of the big tech firms.

In the face of their power, the only thing a business, or private citizen, can do, is beg. In the case of Facebook, and our own experience, we cannot even do that, because they do not have the staff available for us to grovel to.

There are, of course, many Irish people who would be perfectly happy if Gript disappeared overnight. Just as there are those who cheer the censorship of their political opponents by these same companies. All of that, though, is to miss the point: As our example shows, many of these decisions are being made on an entirely arbitrary basis, with no due process. Even your worst enemy, in any civilised society, is entitled to due process. A Facebook employee, sacked for misconduct, would be entitled to have the decision reviewed, and sue for unfair dismissal, because of the loss of their income.

A business which depends on Facebook for its income, on the other hand, can have that income taken away with no due process whatever.

In the coming years, as society becomes even more online than it presently is, these companies will acquire more, and more, power. Society will regret it if they are allowed to continue abusing it. It might start with people and pages you dislike, but it will not end there. It never does.

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