When Facebook's Terms Of Service Decide What Kind Of 'Speech' Is Okay, Activists Get Silenced

from the that's-a-problem,-isn't-it? dept

The Atlantic is covering the fact that Syrian loyalists have been able to abuse Facebook’s “abuse” policy to make various Syrian opposition Facebook pages disappear based on very questionable means. A number of activist pages have simply been wiped out, and even when the folks behind those pages appeal, the appeals get denied. Facebook has, effectively, wiped out much of the key information source for Syrian opposition activists. And this comes even as Facebook itself touted the fact that people in places like Syria were using Facebook to speak up and make themselves heard:

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored.

Well, until Facebook deletes those very pages based on questionable reasons. An example is given of a photo of a man sitting in a chair with a young child on his lap. The man turns out to be an activist who was later killed — but for reasons known only to Facebook censors, the entire post was deleted by Facebook, claiming that it violates their policies.

While the caption notes that the guy was killed by “thugs” it’s hard to see how that violates Facebook’s policies. This gets at a point that we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. When you rely on someone else’s platform for your speech, you’re entirely at the mercy of their terms of service. People use Facebook because it’s easy to connect with others and build communities, and that has value, but you’re risking having that speech disappeared.

This is why it’s often important for people to have platforms that they themselves control — though even then there are points of weakness and attack. You can host your own site, but people will go after upstream providers, including hosting companies and registrars. And service providers who have more open policies get hounded into creating “abuse” policies that appear to make sense at first… even though those abuse policies themselves are open to abuse.

For example, there were plenty of really good reasons why Twitter beefed up its abuse police last year, after a bunch of people had very legitimate complaints about how they were dealing with incredibly abusive behavior on Twitter. But, of course, it’s that kind of “abuse policy” that itself is now being abused by those in Syria seeking to stifle dissent.

And that’s where this gets so tricky. When we see people use these platforms in such abusive ways, it’s quite natural to want to see policies in place that let those abusive actions be stopped and taken down. But with such a process in place, you’re almost guaranteeing that it will be abused as well, and legitimate speech — such as that of these Syrian activists — gets removed and deleted (including important historical documentation and discussions that are now gone forever).

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Comments on “When Facebook's Terms Of Service Decide What Kind Of 'Speech' Is Okay, Activists Get Silenced”

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jameshogg says:

This is not negotiable.

I don’t care if people posting from Syria are supporters of the monster Assad, Al-Qaeda civil-war-hijacking fascists, moderate Muslims or the (always forgotten) secular democratic resistance and socialist democratic resistance.

They have a right to speak their minds. And, extremely crucial: they have a duty to inform us of the events of this tragic civil war that the rest of the world would rather shun away from by any means necessary.

listenherenow says:

Re: Re:

Whoa there hombre.

You didn’t know the U.S. and NATO and Turkey unleashed their quite useful Al-Qaeda dogs? All that was left of the “free syrian army” pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda – or did you not know that too? Did you know that the U.S.’s ally Saudi Arabia supplied Al-Qaeda with Syrian Gas so they could stage an attack and blame it on the Syrian government in order to goad the U.S. to engage? Did you know the Syrian government expresses the rights of religions to coexist together, and that radical groups support well… radicalism? Did you know that covertly backed terrorist groups are supported by U.S. and Israeli Intelligence Services in which those terrorist groups are currently committing terrorist acts against innocent people, all under the special training of NATO Special Forces?

Its the same propaganda plug they pulled on Iraq and Libya. And both of those countries have fallen into ruin despite so called “intervention.” NATO, the U.S. and every other Imperialist player have no interest in the livelihoods of people’s lives they destroy.

Quit fucking watching Propaganda Mainstream TeeVee for christs sake. Wake the fuck up.

I’m out of here. Hard hitting. And in your face.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I agree, they should be allowed to speak.
But when you have the US and Israel spend millions on spreading propaganda on social media, and you see those well worded posts about how bad syria is, then you should at least consider that they may not be entirely honest.

It is not their duty to inform you. You think they are your dogs who shall every day tell you whats happening there? If you care about their problems then there are plenty of real stories available.

Also intresting how the whole chemical weapons thing went quiet…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What ? There’s many ways people used to (and still do) to talk about whatever the fuck they want, especially from strangers, that existed before Shitbook and MySpace. Even MySpace had more of a use, it is very useful due to their music streaming services for bands not eating major label cock to get themselves known, booked and play live shows.

But yeah, forums are pretty great and take a shit on facebook if you want to deal with serious things. Facebook is for casual messing around with people you know irl, but even then, everyone used to just use an IM program for that.

The most intellectually retarded person I know (who has redeeming qualities, and also he’s a childhood friend) only got interested on getting the internet at home on his computer so he could use facebook. These people don’t give a shit about Syria and have no idea what it is.

Those points are not really related to the exact point provided in the article but they are good side opinions on why such services aren’t really needed. And if you need a pre-made system like that, a lot are talked shown on prism-break.org. (warning, this page while legit is watched by the FBI, using a pay for blocklist that is insanely better at detecting the bad guys out there from even contacting your computer tell me an IP from FBIEdgeCast tries to contact my computer when I visit that site. Of course it fails, and doesn’t even know (IPBlock doesn’t tell the attacker anything, the connection attempt just falls into nothingness, I’m not sure its windows counterpart PeerBlock does the same).

EdgeCast are fine themselves, it’s just that the FBI buy some ranges with them and were identified by the good people who make that list, ipfilterX.

Anonymous Coward says:

(including important historical documentation and discussions that are now gone forever)

Not to worry – Facebook doesn’t ever really delete anything. They “just” make it invisible to users, and only to those who don’t have exact URLs to see the now-archived data. This is because Facebook cares about histo—hahaha. No. Facebook always keeps all the data, because it’s how they target their advertising. I suppose it’s possible that they changed things such that people can’t access “deleted” items anymore, but I guarantee you that nothing has left their servers.

We simply have to to wait for them to open their archives to historians (when FB stops pretending to delete things, and that their cold storage BluRay disks aren’t just backups). Granted, that might be a long time, given what happened the last time this scandal went mainstream.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Unfortunately

And I DO mean unfortunately, Facebook is currently so much the market leader as to make other forums almost irrelevant. It’s worse than saying don’t buy on eBay or search with Google. The potential audience is dramatically curtailed.

According to Mike, there are tons of viable alternatives to Google. Same is true for Facebook….. and ISP’s. Bottom line is that these are all private companies who can make their own rules. If you don’t like it, find an alternative.

John Snape (profile) says:

There are pages like this:


that are deplorable, yet stay, and no one can do a whole lot about them. I reported the violent nature of it, but since it comes from a far-leftist viewpoint, it will stay.

Don’t depend on others for your speech. Make your own website!

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

@ John Snape, are you really trying to make out that Facebook is a far leftist website? Don’t talk rot.

That page if indeed appalling but it’s basically trolling. I’m sure I’d find plenty of pages against Hillary Clinton if I even made a cursory search.

Actually, there are a few websites where she is heavily criticized… by a range of people usually considered to be on the left/liberal side of the aisle for being too heavily involved with the corporations.

Can we quit the left/right tribal thing, please? It’s irrelevant to where we’re at now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

One day I seen a post to a story of a black kid who posted white-hate crap on his facebook. The “all niggas sould unite and kill all da crackas” kind. Then he butchered a white family including a 8 month old kid.
The post was removed for being hate speech…
So yes certain groups can post anything while others can not.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Free Speech

There is one aspect of free speech that a lot of folks forget. That is, your right, not to listen. If someone is up on their soap box in the public square, you can just keep on going, until out of earshot. Same with Facebook and Twitter. Just don’t go to those pages. And this is where Facebook and Twitter make the mistake. Their policy should be, if you don’t like it, don’t go there. Un-friend/follow them.

jameshogg says:

Re: Free Speech

Facebook indeed can legally choose what opinions ought to stay on their website and what opinions should not stay. So they therefore have a legal basis to take away any talk about Syria it chooses from its property.

But they absolutely have no moral basis to do so. Let that be clear. Morally, it is contemptible.

Dave says:

Re: Re: Free Speech

But they absolutely have no moral basis to do so.

Because…others say so? Remember, different people have rather different morals, some of which maybe happen to coincide.

Otherwise, who or what moral authority can people ask for enforcement or guidance other than maybe their own judgement call?

Despite what other people feel or think, Facebook ultimately decides for themselves what’s “moral” or whatever. One can question their “free speech” principles or express their outrage at them, of course, but…Facebook will still decide.

(Somewhat funny is that ALL of us can do the same with the premises or stuff we offer the public at large.)

Dave says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Free Speech

Although I gather that kids as young as 6 years old (or even 6 months) can tell right from wrong, not all kids learn morality or so at such an age. Remember, everyone learns at their own age at their own pace.

Until a law or a court of competent jurisdiction can say otherwise, Facebook can still decide what’s moral or not when people use their services. Tell Facebook otherwise and see if that gets you anywhere.

Just Sayin' says:

Re: Re: Free Speech

Since Techdirt generally goes down the line that “moral choices don’t matter, it’s all technology” then it’s pretty safe to say that Facebook is absolutely in the clear here.

Now, on a more serious note, you always have to consider that no matter what, when a line is drawn (and it has to be, Facebook cannot allow EVERYTHING on their site), at some point that line may be drawn in a way that exclude something that seems obviously bad, but may block off something that at least on the surface seems reasonable. However, each choice made by Facebook comes with a reason, although those reasons will not always been shared.

If you don’t like it, don’t use Facebook, plain and simple. But just remember that no matter where you go, unless you own the place yourself, then there will be lines drawn and you won’t like some of them. Free speech doesn’t mean absolute, utterly, unlimited speech and means even less so when you are using a privately owned site with it’s own ToS and restrictions that are perfectly legal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Going to make a Youtube

Of trying to post here on TD, on an article about free speech and censorship, and I will show how Masnick talks the talk, but does not live by his convictions.

I will show everyone how Masnick engages in CENSORSHIP of free speech, at the same times as being critical of others doing exactly what he does..

This should be fun !!

Anonymous Coward says:

Free Speech

I have every right to say anything I want at all.
Reciprocately, everyone has a right to not listen to what I say.

End of debate. Abuse? What abuse? Twitter abuse won’t follow you once you log off. “Incredible amounts of abuse” yeah, show me the bruises and scars. None? Then shut up. And don’t compare meatspace verbal abuse to that on the internet : when you’re abused IRL, you can’t just log off and come back never. On the Internet, you can, and “never” means “a few months later”.

Violynne (profile) says:

” This gets at a point that we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. When you rely on someone else’s platform for your speech, you’re entirely at the mercy of their terms of service.”

Now do you see why I have a fucking problem with Techdirt’s “Hide this post” bullshit?

Not only was the option thrown upon us without warning, it was automatically opt-in and I still don’t see an opt out.

Don’t cast that stone too far, Techdirt. You’re one step away from doing the same thing despite stating otherwise.

You may not block anonymous comments, but covering them up is just as bad.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

@ Violynne, no one has a right to be heard, okay? Speak, yes, but be heard? Hell, no.

I could Godwin this thread if I wanted to, but instead I will leave it to you to imagine the parade of horribles that would ensue if we seriously believed in the right to be heard.

The option to hide unwanted speech means we don’t have it thrust upon us and if we really want to see why the person got reported, we can.

Why the hell should we be FORCED to wade through trollish rants and links to skeevy websites to read comments we actually want to see? Bear in mind the number of calls for the likes of OOTB to be banned outright. The Report button is a reasonable alternative that gives OOTB and her ilk a cage to dance in while the rest of us skip past to comments that are actually worth reading.

Besides, who has a right to impose their own moral values on anyone else, particularly in terms of how they run their website? I avoid those websites that aren’t properly moderated because I don’t want the hassle of wading through dreck to get to those worthwhile comments that have been buried by it.

It might be worth going to unmoderated websites and message boards, to see what happens when there’s no report button. At that point you will hopefully realize why we have one here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The option to hide unwanted speech means we don’t have it thrust upon us and if we really want to see why the person got reported, we can.

Yes, but the act of reporting hides the comments from others. The reporters themselves have already seen it and decided for others that the comment needs to be hidden. Honestly, I can make the decision to ignore or read a post without your help. And since TD changed from a contrasting pink to light grey text for hidden posts, it has become that much more difficult to find them. Moreover, any posts are “reported” because those doing the reporting disagree with the position or dislike the commenter. That’s no justification in my book.

Yet Another Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I view community voting as a way of selecting posts that contribute enough to have a large target audience. This removes the dross, and makes a site more readable.

Since less interesting or useful posts are still available, it is similar to having a front page everyone will want to read. Back sections (collapsed comments) are still available, but most would choose not to wade through them.

OOTB is a good example. I do check his dribble occasionally, but my time is too limited to routinely wade through such nonsense to find something I want to read.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, but the act of reporting hides the comments from others. The reporters themselves have already seen it and decided for others that the comment needs to be hidden.
Yes, but the act of clicking on the post unhides it, allowing others to see it and decide for themselves whether or not it needs to be hidden. Going by what I’ve seen after unhiding posts here, I’m happy to trust the judgment of others.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And there’s the rub, Sheogorath. By limiting freedom of speech to actually speaking, we avoid hair-splitting over how to prevent neo-nazi groups from stomping into synagogues disseminating hate speech. There, I said it.

This article pretty much sums up my point of view:


Basically, I think it’s reasonable to moderate what is said on websites while allowing people to say what they like on their own – where they can be ignored. Why should we reward or even encourage attention-whoring?

rapnel (profile) says:

Re: I don't understand

Violynne, I don’t understand your comment. You’re offended by having to select collapsed comments in order to see them? Comments that the readership, as opposed to the site administrators, have chosen to collapse?

It’s really no different than slashdot’s filter or reddit reductions or even a dotfile in your OS. Each require different levels of dig through but each is fully and completely irrevocably accessible to discover on their own.

Your rant makes little sense given the very real accessibility to any collapsed comments.

I’m afraid your comment is not aligned with the total disappearance and inaccessibility of user data. You’re bitching about nothing as if you were correct about something.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm ok with this

Stupid wahhabis who compose most of the so-called Syrian revolt can go to hell. Wahhabis are an aberration of Islam. Muslims are supposed to follow the Adat (Law of Moses), which was the law in muslim countries until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This shariah law crap is not islam and there is no way I’m gonna care about the so-called free speech rights of people who infiltrate the West so as to support them

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