Facebook Is Removing Protest Pages. That’s a Terrible Precedent.
Facebook is a central hub for organizing under quarantine — the fact that it can shut down political groups at will should worry us all
Last week, images of MAGA-hat wearing protestors, unmasked and tightly packed together on street corners, ricocheted across the internet. Their red-white-and-blue signs, reminiscent of Tea Party rallies 10 years ago, called for an end to government quarantine orders and reopening the economy. Despite his own administration’s social distancing guidance, President Trump tweeted his support. Depending on your politics — and perhaps your trust in epidemiologists — the attendees were either brave freedom-fighters resisting government overreach or reckless ideologues, risking public health to produce a moment of media spectacle.
On Monday, Recode reported that Facebook, after consulting with state governments, had removed certain event pages for in-person rallies against coronavirus lockdowns in California, New Jersey, and Nebraska. The decision was met with immediate backlash from conservatives like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Donald Trump Jr., who accused Facebook of “colluding with state governments to quash people[’]s free speech.” Meanwhile, the decision was welcomed by some liberals, like Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who tweeted, “Powerful special interests are using astroturfing & dangerous tactics to undermine the fight against COVID-19. Facebook is right to take a stand against harmful misinformation.”
A Facebook spokesperson clarified to Politico that it had reached out to state officials to “understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests.” The decision, the spokesperson said, was ultimately Facebook’s. “We remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful,” the spokesperson said.
Still, the move raises serious questions about the role of social platforms during the pandemic — and not just among those sympathetic to anti-quarantine rallies. Social distancing has eliminated many of the traditional methods for effectively leveraging political energy against decision-makers. Activists and “essential” workers are using Facebook to organize petitions, protests, walkouts, and other forms of political expression to put pressure on politicians and employers. Social platforms were already important theaters for democratic participation and deliberation; now they’re the only game in town.
Acknowledging that “mass public gatherings that ignore social-distancing recommendations may well be creating a public health danger,” American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Vera Eidelman told OneZero, “Speech about government responses to the pandemic — from relief packages like the CARES Act to stay-home orders — is core political speech. Facebook, which controls a platform for the speech of billions, should not be censoring political speech online. This is especially true now, when questions of when and how to reopen the country are among the central political questions, and online platforms are the main vehicle for expression.”
As defenders of the decision have pointed out, Facebook is not a government and, despite the rhetoric of founder Mark Zuckerberg, has never abided by free speech absolutism. Facebook is constantly making judgments about what sort of speech is acceptable, dangerous, or manipulative. But even if we accept Facebook’s assertion that its goal is public safety and lawfulness, the question is whether we trust Facebook to decide what constitutes a “safe” and “lawful” form of protest.
It’s impossible to overstate how important social platforms have become in the coronavirus era. People use social media to find news about the severity of the virus and how to contain it, public health agencies disseminate guidelines on the platforms, politicians broadcast their speeches and press conferences, families communicate with their socially distanced relatives and friends, and users debate their governments’ policy responses to the pandemic and its economic fallout.
In recognition of this heightened indispensability — and the increased danger of misinformation circulating on its network — Facebook has unceremoniously claimed a host of new powers to protect users from “harmful content”: more aggressive moderation, a suspension of due process for censored users, banning advertisements for price-gouging retailers, and a more active role in arbitrating truth and falseness. Due to a dearth of human content moderators, Facebook is relying more heavily on its AI algorithms to flag unacceptable speech. “The platforms are churning out new rules by the day and being unapologetic about it,” said Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School who focuses on social platforms and digital constitutionalism.
To an extent, Douek said, that makes sense. “Emergency powers are good when there’s an emergency.” False or deliberately harmful information about Covid-19 could endanger millions of lives. Like governments around the world, social platforms are suspending and changing the rules in response to an existential threat. Unlike a government, however, Facebook has no democratic accountability or immutable internal laws binding it. A constitutional democracy may suspend certain rights in a state of emergency and return to normalcy when the state of exception has passed; Facebook has no legal obligation to give up its new powers when the crisis is over. “The question is, are they being exercised even-handedly, neutrally, proportionately?” said Douek. “Is this temporary? What’s going to happen when or if the emergency subsides?”
Douek believes the decision regarding anti-quarantine protests, and Facebook’s narrow rationale, is reasonable enough. “It appears they’re only taking down events encouraging people to breach social distancing guidelines,” she said. “They don’t seem to be taking down protests where people are supposed to come and honk their horns from inside their cars. They’re being really clear about the exact public safety risk they’re worried about.”
And yet, many forms of protest can involve threats to public safety. During the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015, activists embraced a range of more aggressive civil disobedience tactics to disrupt normal operations in cities — including shutting down highways and bridges. At the time, BLM opponents accused activists of endangering the public by generating traffic that could prevent ambulances from reaching their destination. Whether or not you approve of this particular tactic, it would be concerning if Facebook had begun shutting down BLM protest events to mitigate the risk of such disruption.
Activists on the left already have reason to mistrust Facebook’s approach to moderating protest content. In 2018, as white supremacists prepared to descend on Washington, D.C. to commemorate the year anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, Facebook removed an event page for a counter-protest organized by local Washington D.C. activists — including the local chapter of Black Lives Matter — which had thousands of RSVPs. At the time, Facebook said one of the event page’s originators was “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior” linked to Russian bot accounts.
“People in D.C. were organizing to defend our communities from neo-Nazis celebrating the anniversary of the day they murdered someone in Charlottesville,” said Sandy Fulton, a D.C. activist involved in the counter-protest. “Out of nowhere, Facebook pulled the event. And then organizers had to run around justifying their own authenticity, because Facebook had given the far right an excuse to say, ‘See look, all of that is just Russian propaganda.’”
In the present, social platforms have become critical modes of communication for “essential” workers being forced to toil in unsafe conditions. Employees at Amazon, whose warehouses are designed to minimize space and time available for workers to meet and commiserate during the workday, have used Facebook extensively to organize walkouts across the country to demand protective equipment, paid sick leave, and closures of warehouses with Covid cases.
Given its rationale regarding anti-quarantine protests, what would stop Facebook from shutting down an event page for a mass walkout at an Amazon warehouse — especially if the workers planned to congregate outside? Already Amazon has used social distancing rules as an excuse to fire workers agitating for better conditions. Facebook might be susceptible to the same rationale. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.)
This example underscores the fact that “public safety” is not a neutral concept. Many Amazon warehouse employees fear that their workplaces could be petri dishes for the virus. Jordan Flowers, who works at an Amazon facility on Staten Island, told OneZero he fears going into work, where PPE is still scarce and social distancing is only loosely enforced. He believes Amazon is still hiding Covid cases. “Is it going to take someone to die for them to do something? We shouldn’t have to think like that,” Flowers said. On Thursday, Business Insider reported an outbreak of 30 confirmed cases at an Amazon warehouse in Carteret, New Jersey.
And yet, Amazon continues to hire tens of thousands of new employees and rake in billions of dollars during this crisis. If these warehouses are a threat to public safety — and aren’t abiding by the government’s social distancing guidelines — should Facebook stop allowing Amazon to advertise jobs on its network? The rationale Facebook has offered for shutting down protest events would suggest they should.
But of course, they won’t. If anything has become clear during this crisis, it’s that modern American capitalism is designed to preserve the safety of the comfortable at the expense of workers — whose health can be sacrificed to keep the economy moving.
When questions of content moderation arise, a common counterargument is that Facebook isn’t a government bound by constitutional guarantees; when it comes to Facebook’s decision-making, legalistic terms like “precedent” and “due process” are red herrings, neither is enforceable in a court. Facebook will do what it wants.
“I hear this argument a lot that by talking about Facebook in these legal terms, you’re legitimizing their sovereignty, giving them an aura of power that they should not have,” said Douek. “I don’t believe that. Constitutionalism is not only about endowing legitimacy; it is also a form of constraint.”
Douek believes it’s naïve to pretend that Facebook isn’t creating rules about speech and enacting censorship. By speaking about its decisions in legalistic terms, the point is to prefigure the sort of transparency, accountability, and constraints that should be applied to an indispensable public square like Facebook. It may not be bound by “precedent” in a strict juridical sense, but it is constantly creating norms. When those norms are violated, ideally, the public can hold it accountable.
The problem, at the moment, is a shortage of available means for enforcing any of Facebook’s existing norms — or evaluating its new measures. “With the platforms,” Douek said, “we have absolutely no way of demanding any kind of evaluation of what they’ve been doing, whether it’s been helpful, whether it’s been even-handed, or for them to return to normal.”
Still some will find Douek’s digital constitutionalism too sanguine: wishful thinking that obscures the reality that Facebook is a massive for-profit monopoly that can never be held meaningfully accountable by the democratic public that relies on it. Already we have seen Facebook’s renewed commitment to moderate harmfully inaccurate content belied by its advertising algorithms — which, until discovered and highlighted by The Markup, allowed for ads to be targeted to people interested in “pseudoscience.”
This view points to the necessity for antitrust enforcement, dismantling or breaking up Facebook, or at the very least for more alternative and competing social networks. So long as there’s money to be made showing people incendiary content, Facebook’s business model is secure and unlikely to fundamentally change.
For the time being, however, we’re stuck with this omnipotent digital quasi-government, with its capricious and uneven rules, robot censors, and executives sensitive to political and commercial winds. I don’t particularly trust any of those forces to decide what counts as a safe protest — or arbitrate the meaning of free expression. We may not approve of the anti-quarantine actions. We may (justifiably) suspect nefarious forces behind them. We may even fear their impact on public health. If so, we should condemn them. But from where I’m sitting, they look a lot like political speech and assembly. And we’re going to need a lot more of both before this is over.