Oh Facebook. How I loathe thee.
I will no longer be creating original written content in Facebook. No more status posts, no more comments. I’m not getting off Facebook, but I will be posting links to my blog for my own feelings on things, or links to interesting articles, WITHOUT COMMENT OR CONTEXT OR ANALYSIS, or gifs, stickers and images. That’s it. I do not want to run afoul of the Facebook content standards guidelines again, because twice in one week is enough for me.
That’s right I’m back in jail. Find me on Twitter for now.
Friday, I was counting down the minutes until I was finally out of my 3 day stint in Facebook Jail. I had been so digitally incarcerated after having the gall to post the comment “Men are trash,” in response to a post by a Facebook friend and his horrible experiences trying to find a boyfriend.
Okay, fine, Facebook. No blanket statements about an entire class of people. Got it.
And that’s fair. Like Facebook, I also want to see less hate speech, less attacks on groups of people. While I don’t think it should be restricted LEGALLY (more on this later), I do believe in that old chestnut that the best response to problematic speech is more speech. Don’t lock up the men’s rights activist, debate him until you soften his stances and bring him to your side. But Facebook is not the U.S. government and it’s rules on speech are different. More on this later.
During my time in lock-up, my friend, David sent a screen cap of another Facebook post. A friend of his had posted something slightly more nuanced than what I had posted, but basically saying the same thing. As I noted to David, I found it curious that post was staying up but my “Men are trash,” comment got my online life impounded. Here is the post, with redactions:
David pointed out that the difference between what got me thrown in the pen and this still live post is the way it is phrased. Had this been phrased, “males are unnecessary,” David posited, it would have been taken down. But because of the way it’s phrased, there is some ambiguity here and the algorithm leaves it alone.
Is this the solution, then? Just use nuance and the machine will leave me be?
The next day, Friday, I eagerly awaited the end of my sentence. As the minutes ticked by, I imagined all of the hilarious tongue-in-cheek references I’d make on Facebook to my forced time off. A gif of Nicholas Cage happily emerging into the fresh air from the ConAir plane. Madison Montgomery turning the corner and hitting her light, “Surprise, bitch. Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.” Etc.
Last week on Thursday, I posted a lengthy blog post about checking out non-corporate controlled, decentralized, federated social networks while I was in my Facebook time-out. My friend, David — the one who sent the screen grab — posted a link to my blogpost in his Facebook feed, and tagged my Facebook profile in the post. His post generated a lively discussion about Facebook’s growing draconian reach into our personal lives, the lack of any obvious alternative to Facebook in terms of a public forum where most of the people you know participate, as well as cute jabs at me. All of which I could not respond to, as I was, again, in Facebook jail.
Just as my Prison time was set to expire, David added a new comment to the thread on his post originally linking to my blog, with a link to a very fascinating and very thorough Vanity Fair examination of Facebook’s current efforts to curb hate speech. “‘Men Are Scum,’: Inside Facebook’s War on Hate Speech,” in which Simon Van Zuylen-Wood spent a week with unfiltered access to Facebook’s “shadow government,” which sets and polices Facebook’s content standards. Standards like the one I violated when I wrote “Men are trash,” in a comment on a friend’s posts. Standards that also punish “Men are scum,” but not “Male nipples are unnecessary. As are males.” It is a GREAT article, and kind of required reading to understand what happened to me next.
The countdown to my emancipation reached zero, and I was eager to announce my freedom to the world. I quickly posted the witty things I’d thought about, and shared an article. I also went and looked at some of the comment threads on posts that I had been unable to interact with while in jail, including the comment thread on David’s posting of my blog, which included the Vanity Fair link in the comment thread.
For context, David wrote “I wish I had posted this sooner,” regarding the link, implying that if David had posted that link sooner, I would have known better than to write “Men are trash,” in a comment on someone’s post. Well, it’s kind of you to think that David, but truly, as we can see from what transpired after, I do not know better.
I’d browsed the article briefly when he posted the comment, but hadn’t truly dissected it (I have done so since).
I scrolled my little cursor down to the subthread under the Vanity Fair article link, and recalled the screenshot that David had sent me in my time in the clink.
In a riff off of the article title, and in reference to that screenshot, I wrote, “Men are the designers of Facebook. They are also scum. See I learned!”
No, clearly, I had not learned.
Not five minutes later, I was suddenly unable to post, like or comment again.
Seven days this time. And now, now, it doesn’t just extend to Facebook proper, but to Facebook Messenger as well. So if you’re trying to message me there, I can’t respond. Send me a Twitter @ or DM, or text me. I’m also on Wire (philguin82), Wickr (pjrpjr), and more.
Livid that Facebook’s algorithm seemed to be targeting me now, I hastily contested my newly extended sentence, and awaited a reply. The block was upheld, I would have no amnesty, but I would be allowed to comment on the situation.
Then I fully read the Vanity Fair article.
I applaud Facebook’s attempts to try to protect it’s 2.5 billion users from bullying and possibly problematic speech. But this is a problem bigger than Facebook, and yet Facebook cannot be extracted from the equation.
From the dawn of civilization until about 2012, the public square, where debate and discussion happened, was indeed pretty public. At first it was literally a spot in town. And remained so until the 20th century. Then as technology began taking over our lives, the public square started to shift to multiple mediums: the phone, the newspaper, the radio show, the TV news program. Some more private than publicly controlled, but all still distributed between multiple entities of control. And ephemeral. Though TV shows and radio shows can be and are more increasingly recorded for posterity now, they weren’t always. And though newspapers have always been kept for posterity, it was usually in archives, libraries and scrap books.
But then Facebook became the public square.
Facebook is the sole owner of the single most important place where most Americans and much of the world goes to get news and information, and discuss said news and information. And Facebook’s first priority, as a business, is to stay in business. Keep the advertisers writing checks so that they can keep the lights on in the sprawling 5 mile Menlo Park, California campus.
Maintaining totally unencumbered free speech on Facebook is antithetical to their business model. If Facebook doesn’t want to lose advertising dollars from Proctor and Gamble, they can’t allow problematic speech on their platform to continue to embarrass them in the media. So they have to crack down on that problematic speech. Facebook is not the U.S. Government, which is bound by the constitution to not get in the way of the freedom of speech even if it is not the speech the Government desires it’s citizens to …be speeching.
But Facebook has left us scant few other places to go to express ourselves. They are the center of the attention economy, and it’s biggest player by far, so we are locked to it. And as such, our speech is subject to the approval or disapproval of KraftHeinz and Unilever and their dollars.
Facebook has privatized the public square. And this is a problem. A Government can enshrine free speech into its laws because it’s not beholden to advertisers. It’s (in theory at least) beholden to it’s electorate, and giving it’s electorate an equal opportunity to express themselves is in the government’s best interests.
But as I said in my last blog post on the subject, we are the product that Facebook is selling. It is not beholden to us in the least. And if the product Facebook is selling has some rotten batches, Facebook is far more likely to just throw those rotten batches out than to try to negotiate a fair compromise with said batches, like my debating of the Men’s Rights Activist I mentioned in the earlier paragraph. Facebook is fully incentivized to just completely remove any user that makes their platform less desirable to big-bucks-bandying-brands whose shareholders demand they maintain a wholesome image.
If you went out into the public square in 1919 and said “Men are Trash,” you probably would have gotten into some arguments, but the police — the agents of your government — would not have locked you up. Or worse, thrown you out of town completely. But in 2019, our public square has been privatized by Facebook. If I go out to town square today, it’d be desolate. I would have noone to say “Men are Trash” to. All these conversations now live on Facebook.
But perhaps this problem will solve itself. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably already know that I am (well… was) a P R O L I F I C Facebooker. To the point that if you unfollowed me at any point, I don’t blame you. I post(ed) a lot. I’ve often become Facebook friends with someone only to have them tell me a few days later “My Facebook feed is all Phil.”
Because I’m so active on Facebook, I have a lot of followers and people who interact with Facebook more because I am filling up their feed with, what I assume is content they sometimes find interesting. I mean most of it probably isn’t, but I’d assume they’d have unfollowed me sometime ago if NONE of it is interesting.
But starting Thursday, when my most recent Facebook incarceration concludes, this will no longer be the case. As I said above, to avoid running afoul of the algorithm ever again, I am done typing words into Facebook. Both my infractions were for comments on other people’s posts, not even original posts by me. As we see above, I can link to an article that carries the title “Men are scum,” I just can’t actually type “men are scum” in to the Facebook text composer field and press, “post.” I could find a gif that says “Men are scum,” and post that in a comment, but if I type out the words in the comment I’m off.
And I need Facebook. Because like it or not, y’all are still on it. There is no other public square for me to get people aware of and excited for my DJ parties and events. There is no other place to track the happenings in my social circle and avoid the FOMO of missing a big concert or whatnot. So I’m not deleting my Facebook account.
But my feed is going to be be noticeably reduced. And as such, I will be putting a lot less into the Facebook ecosystem for people to react to. And I will be seeking other forums to communicate with audiences online.
And that’s just one person. A drop in the bucket for Facebook’s 2.5 BILLION users. But one power user.
And who are most likely to run afoul of these rules of curtailed speech? The power users.
The Vanity Fair article opens with a very interesting anecdote that addresses this.
The trouble started a year ago, in the fall of 2017. The #MeToo movement had recently begun. Nicole Silverberg, currently a writer on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, had shared on her Facebook page a trove of bilious comments directed at her after she’d written a list of ways men “need to do better.” In the comments section beneath her post, another comic, Marcia Belsky, wrote, “Men are scum.” Facebook kicked Belsky off the platform for 30 days.
This seemed absurd. First of all, the news at the time was dominated by stories of men acting scummily. Second, Facebook had been leaving up plenty of well-documented crap. By then the company was deep into an extended cycle of bad press over the toxic, fraudulent, and/or covertly Russian content that had polluted its platform throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. In Western Europe, the far right was using the site to vilify Middle Eastern migrants. In Southeast Asia, authoritarian regimes were using it to dial up anger against religious minorities and political enemies. But Facebook was taking down “men are scum”?
Belsky hopped on a 500-person (Facebook) group of female comics. A bunch of them were getting banned for similar infractions, even as they reported sexist invective being hurled their way. They decided to protest by spamming the platform. On November 24, dozens of “men are scum” posts went up. And then … they came right down. Belsky was put back in Facebook jail. The women of Men Are Scum became a brief Internet cause célèbre, another data point in the never-ending narrative that Facebook doesn’t care about you.
This is going to start affecting more and more of the power users on Facebook. And the more of us opt out of creating content for the platform, the less there will be to interact with. The less content there is to interact with, the less useful it will be to check Facebook constantly for content. A prime example of this having happened this year? Just ask Tumblr. Analysis shows that by March, their traffic was down over 30 per cent over December. Surely that will only continue to spiral out of control.
I don’t think Facebook should be handling hate speech any different than how they are. I don’t want to see hate speech, so that’s good. I just don’t think that Facebook should any longer BE our central hub for all of these conversations taking place. A private company should not be the sole place for all of our conversations. I wrote a long blog post about the Fediverse, and how decentralized networks can solve this problem. The second biggest hurdle to using these networks, though, is that very few users are on there, and those that are, don’t really know what exactly to post and how to interact. It’s all very wild west.
But the more that Facebook content policies force people like me to migrate our original thoughts elsewhere, the more one or two of these may actually pick up more steam and become a better place for these debates. Facebook won’t have to worry about policing content, because there will be very little content to police. And that’s probably for the best.
What are your thoughts on how to de-tangle the public square from privately owned and massive forums, particularly Facebook and Twitter? Comment below.