Social media was heretofore in the censorship business only as a means to self-regulate and remove haters, stalkers and law-breakers. Something is changing, and it behooves us to pay close immediate attention.
We live in politicized times where media titans regularly exercise their rights to slant the messages their empires publish. Simply the mention of outlets like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or even the New York Times causes frowns or raised eyebrows from the right or the left.
Now there is a new face in the politically slanted content game, Facebook. In recent weeks Facebook decreed that gun owners and medical marijuana groups would no longer enjoy the freedoms of speech that our constitution provides them. And just last week Instagram (a Facebook-owned company) announced that it will be using deep tracking mechanisms and algorithms to store data on their members and decide what their members see in their feeds, and in what order. New eyebrows should be raised.
On the censorship front, when the largest free-speech network in the world politically regulates what law-abiding citizens can and can’t say and do, the betrayal is of core American ideology. Instead, censorship is empowered, along with an over-the-top spying on and blacklisting of law-abiding users. Is it a stretch to suggest early warning signs – regarding the possibility of building the online equivalent of last century’s McCarthy-era blacklisting of honest-to-goodness Americans because their opinions are “wrong?”
Facebook discourages groups organizing around issues it supports – be it about our GMO food supply or mandatory vaccines. Facebook bans legal gun groups and medical marijuana dispensaries. These bans cut both ways, liberal and conservative. Facebook even bans photos of mothers’ breastfeeding.
While people debate Facebook’s politicizing these issues, their actions are counterintuitive to the fundamentals of social media. This is not about vaccinations, genetically modified foods, gun control, and so on. I have strong opinions about all of the above, but leave them to the pundits to debate and the politicians I support in voice and action to legislate. This is about blatant censorship, ignoring law-abiding citizens’ right to freedom of speech because their thoughts contrast with a social network founder’s beliefs.
On the tracking front in the example of Instagram, which now mimics Facebook’s own algorithmic content manipulation, this is similarly akin to not only censorship, but also the ability for a corporation to decide what members see and what they don’t. This can further take the manipulation of a member’s content in the direction that Mark Zuckerberg deems in line with his opinions and philosophies about life. In other words, the news content that is served to members will be slanted to support the political opinions of Facebook’s founder.
Politicizing social media is the antithesis of the definition of the medium. Social media isn’t about minding the legal business of others. It’s about having the freedom and privacy to express yourself, connect with people, and share or withhold information as you see fit as long as you follow the laws of our great democracy.
There’s irony here. Facebook has rallied with most of Silicon Valley against the federal government’s desire to monitor the content of its users. It’s a fascinating debate. The irony is that every invasive action the company accuses the government of trying to do and that it rallies against, is basically the recipe for behavior that the company follows in regards to its own users.
When you algorithmically monitor every member, along with censoring law-abiding groups and topics, you’re more than admitting that you’re looking at content – you are saying that you are the dictator. The voice of the people suddenly becomes the voice of one monitor. People say that Fox News and MSNBC create slanted versions of the truth. But Facebook politicizing social media has much larger societal implications. By censoring and therefore controlling and manipulating the content and opinions of a far larger proportion of the general populous, Facebook is boxing in our freedoms and attempting to shape the permissible dialogue in our “free” society.
Say you’re a fair-play American citizen. You may not agree with everything this country does and you may get frustrated and scream at the heavens about the endless amount of political party gridlock, but you nevertheless follow the rule of law. That rule of law gives you a voice and celebrates diversity. It’s what makes this country so great. We have freedoms of expression, religious and political beliefs, and a whole lot more. We embrace that ideology. We don’t punish people for abiding by it.
Social media is intended to be a self-regulating private and public forum. That is how Facebook was designed and what they intended at the outset for how to monitor their members. And yes, absolutely the law-breakers, haters, and violence inciters, are to be dislodged and disinvited. But not the law-abiders; that is the rub here. Censorship of law-abiding citizens is un-American.
China and other authoritarian countries use social media as a filter, a way to identify dissenters. How is that any different than Facebook’s censorship? It might not imprison someone behind actual bars or subject them to physical torture, but it renders them impotent and represses the broader society. This is akin to a slow poisoning; with the longer-term, though not so far-fetched potential of becoming our culture’s emotional castration.
Should the world’s largest communication forum support the personal freedoms of its law-abiding customers? Facebook is a proud American creation, and here in the USA we encourage the exchange of ideas and the freedom to disagree, and fight wars to bring those freedoms to the rest of the world.
The slippery slope of the expanding politicization of Facebook is of far greater consequence then taking a righteous “kick you out for disagreeing” stand on particular issues. It minimizes self-expression and mutes the rich diversity of opinions; the very benchmarks that lead to improvements in our society. Let’s cherish and nurture what our Founding Fathers created for us, and respect the rights of all law-abiding citizens using social media technology.