Facebook is trying, Lord knows, it’s trying. But it seems to be getting tangled up in unintended consequences and big misses. And it may be on a collision course with free speech and government dissent, whether it likes it or not.
If you are still seeing questionable news items, such as outright fake news or baseless opinion masquerading as citizen journalism, you are not alone. You may have also noticed that real news is given the “i” for information imprimatur by Facebook. When you hover over the “i,” a blurb is generated that tells you about the publication. The platform’s users must deduce that the absence of such a blurb means the publisher is not taken seriously by Facebook.
Well, of course, Facebook has said it would ideally avoid such judgments and just be a technology company. But, the reality of election campaign law in the United States and cries for transparency means that is must identify political advertisers. No problem for a tech company, right? Wrong. For example, the New York Times recently reported that Facebook failed to label the sponsor of an attack ad in a California congressional race.
SOCIAL MEDIA COUNTS AS A PUBLIC FORUM for free SPEECH
While some bemoan that Facebook became political, the reality is that public officials and their government offices use social media to communicate with constituents and voters. Many police departments also have garnered followers with useful public safety information mixed in with humorous posts.
The @realDonaldTrump account is the megaphone the president uses to bypass fact-checking to reach the masses and gin up a daily fervor. He recently lost a lawsuit over his account blocking users who express dissenting points of view from his politics. The Knight First Amendment Institute and blocked Twitter users brought the case to argue their participation in free speech had been limited. Although Twitter is a private company, the court held that the president’s account is controlled by the government and the content is government speech.
By extension, the court also found that the account constitutes a public forum and that the president’s account cannot block those with differing views from directly interacting with his tweets. The president was not alone in his efforts to stifle contradictory views. At the end of last year, ProPublica found that several governors (from both parties) and federal agencies had been blocking more than 1,200 social media accounts.
Shortly before the Trump Twitter case was decided in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation brought a related case in a federal court in Texas. EFF, on behalf of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is taking Texas A&M, a state university, to task for blocking Facebook page commenters and/or deleting posts that are critical of its animal testing program for muscular dystrophy research. A university spokesman declined to comment at the time of the lawsuit’s filing, according to the Houston Chronicle. But, a February 26 statement from the renowned veterinary school expressed dismay about critics of the MD research: “It saddens us that without full knowledge—of what we are doing, how the dogs are treated, and how close we are to an effective treatment—groups have taken a rigid position and are using slander that adversely affects the opinion of those who don’t know all of the facts.”
If the Trump Twitter opinion serves as a guide, it’s likely government accounts are going to have to adjust to taking a lot of lumps from critics, without deleting those comments or blocking users. And, that could get very messy. That said, messiness is nothing new in our democracy.
Well, what about businesses’ accounts on social media? Do they have to keep negative commenters? Doubtfully. In the U.S., the government is held to a different standard than a business when it comes to free speech. (Before we undertake this examination, I must disclaim that I neither attended law school nor stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. In the interest of full disclosure, I do hold a journalism degree and an abiding love of the First Amendment.)
If you have not memorized the Bill of Rights, here is a crib sheet with the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It’s that last phrase that sets the government apart. Just as it cannot limit free speech by citizens, by extension, it must be held accountable. Ergo, government speech, actions and decision-making must remain transparent and in the sunshine, for all to see.
But, if you are selling cupcakes (or dare I say wedding cakes?) and someone posts on your Facebook page that the cupcakes tasted terrible, feel free to delete that comment. Likewise, if your business Twitter account is being followed by Russian bots with half-naked women in the profile pictures, go ahead and block that noise. There are some social media platforms that do not give business owners much recourse aside from responding to negative reviews (Google and Yelp, for example).
Before you get carried away deleting posts from critics and blocking users, consider if any of them are expressing valid concerns. If so, respond directly, respectfully and courteously. In some cases, a perfunctory response may be appropriate. In other cases, a more robust dialogue may just be to your benefit.
–Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives