Picture this: you’re browsing around your Facebook homepage, checking on your favorite friends and lovers, tagging yourself in photos from the weekend, when suddenly, you stumble upon a religious group.
You write a comment on the group’s wall, quoting a bible passage or contributing your thoughts to the group’s discussion. You hit enter. Boom—a beautiful moment of social conversation and self-publishing all at once. The comment looms on the screen for a few moments, but then, in the blink of an eye, it vanishes, as if sucked into the vortex of internet oblivion.
It’s called Facebook censorship, and it’s more common than you might think.
With the rise of citizen journalism and the growing popularity of “Facebook journalism,” the social network is being hailed as the new “free and democratic press.” Because of social media networks like Facebook, the world is more transparent and we, as users, are free to author our own digital histories. However, the scope of that freedom is still being negotiated, and Facebook may not me the unmediated form of self-publishing and information sharing that we’d like to think.
Don’t get me wrong—I love Facebook— but a recent group formed on The Wall Street Journal’s homepage grabbed my attention: “Religious and political censorship by Facebook” is the group’s name. Their game? Tracking instances of censorship on the social network.
“The ongoing and growing political censorship by Facebook should be a great concern for all who participate in social networking,” reads the group’s discussion page introduction. “While I have mostly been the victim of religious censorship I have had political posts censored.”
The “I” speaking here is Steve Winter, who created the anti-censorship group on Facebook in September of 2010. So far, the group has eight members and 107 “likes.” In addition to spearheading the virtual group, Winter has also documented instances of Facebook censorship on the discussion page of The Wall Street Journal’s homepage.
Winter is the face of the war against online censorship. He has been collecting evidence of Facebook censorship for the past two years and uploading it onto the Wall Street Journal’s discussion page. Follow the link to view three web pages of 24 documented Facebook censorship cases, some dated as early as eight months ago.
On his Facebook group page “Beware of Facebook censorship,” Winter explains that Facebook censored out Bible passages that were posted as wall comments and claims that the social network censored the phrase “Winterband Christain rock,” the name of his Christian rock band. In addition to censoring his religious posts, Winter claims that the social network also blotted out any links he posted on his wall about Facebook censorship, including a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal on the issue of censorship in online platforms.
With his long, white beard and leather jacket, Winter looks more like Santa Claus gone rock and roll than a political activist, but the eccentric sixty-two-year-old from North Carolina may be onto something. Though Winter could not be contacted for an interview, his allegations that Facebook is censoring religious and political material should warrant concern from any audience invested in freedom of speech on the social network.
Type “Facebook censorship” in the search bar of the social network. Go on, try it. You’ll get at least fifteen results—all groups that have come together to fight for freedom of speech on the very platform they’re accusing. The number of members in each group ranges from 35 people (“Facebook Blackout Internet Censorship”) to 292 members (“Fight Facebook Censorship”), but nevertheless demonstrates a growing awareness and concern for our online freedoms.
Francesco Gatti is a freedom activist and photojournalist currently based in China. He’s the leader of the “Against Facebook censorship” page, one of the most popular Facebook groups dedicated to freedom of speech. The Facebook page currently has 168 members and opens with a quote from John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty, a quote which sets the tone for the group’s aims. I caught up with Gatti to discuss why he started the page and why he feels Facebook should be an uncensored platform for conversation. “I am against censorship of any kind” says Gatti, whose currently in Shanghai fighting for free speech.
Gatti started the page after Facebook censored pictures he’d posted by his favorite artist Matteo Basilé. Basilé is a digital artist known for his depictions of the body. Facebook specifically took issue with Basilé’s female nudes, and according to Gatti, the social network took down the images shortly after he’d uploaded them, and he claims that such censorship is harmful to our collective online culture.
And it’s not only nudity that Facebook is censoring. A recent article in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine, tells that the social network deleted a photo of two men kissing. “The image was posted on a Facebook page protesting a London pub’s decision to eject a same-sex couple for kissing” (qtd from Advocate). The instance between the same-sex couple and the London bar angered the LGBT community, and in resistance, they took to Facebook to protest. They were shocked when Facebook, their only outlet for resistance, censored the image.
Facebook claims the erasure of the “gay kiss” image was an error, and they’ve apologized for the removal. In a statement obtained by American Blog, Facebook said that “[t]he photo in question does not violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and was removed in error. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
But what about Winter’s religious posts and the missing Basilé images? Should these be apologized for as well, or is there justification for restricting our online freedom of expression?
Although Facebook could not be contacted for a statement, the company outlines their censorship policies online. According to Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, a user is in violation of their agreement with Facebook if they post any content that is “hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
While the terms may seem straightforward, the instances cropping up throughout the internet on Facebook censorship demonstrate that the social network is still negotiating what type of material falls under each category. For example, at what point is an image considered “pornographic” as opposed to just scandalous, and who gets to decide?
Take the Basilé images, for example. Remember that according to Gatti, the images were deleted because of their nudity, but in Gatti’s opinion, art should never be censored. I think we could all agree with him, because in theory, so-called “free art” sounds good, but how ethical is it in practice? What’s more, who gets to decide what is “artful” and what isn’t on Facebook?
Let’s pretend I upload a naked picture of myself as my profile picture. Likely, it would be removed within hours— if not sooner. However, if Facebook allowed for “artistic” nudity, then I’d technically be able to take that same picture, upload it into iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop, impose a Sepia or Warhol treatment, and post it as “art.” Who could argue with me?
It would be easy to say that Facebook is the new Big Brother, monitoring every digital move we make in an Orwellian manner, but it’s not that simple; Facebook isn’t trying to stifle art, they’re simply trying to keep a clean corporate image. But still, this doesn’t account for the erasure of Steve Winter’s religious posts, which he claims Facebook has deleted time and again.
If Facebook is the new free and democratic press we have to understand that, like any publication, the social network has guidelines and limitations, and—also like any publication—Facebook must negotiate legalities and rules surrounding what’s “appropriate” and what’s not.
Despite the fact that Facebook has become a part of our everyday lives, we need to remember that the company is still young and still working out its technicalities. And, like any new company, they’re bound to make mistakes, like the erasure of same-sex image.
What do you think about freedom of speech and censorship on Facebook?