Last August, Baltimore County police killed Korryn Gaines and injured her 5-year-old son. Korryn was broadcasting videos of the police standoff on her Facebook account, but police ordered that Facebook deactivate her account -- and Facebook did. That set a dangerous precedent, and meant that the public never found out more about her death.
In the wake of that injustice, 40,000 people from the Daily Kos community signed a petition that was part of a coalition effort calling on Facebook to to stop censoring Movement for Black Lives activists. This coalition included Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, SumOfUs, and many other social and racial justice organizations.
That launched Daily Kos’s involvement (I’m in the activism team here at Daily Kos) in a coalition campaign that broadened as news came out about Facebook censoring other activists and human rights defenders (including water protectors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter activists in Charlotte). Thousands of Daily Kos community members then signed a coalition petition with broader asks for transparency and accountability around Facebook’s censorship policies.
Over 80 groups signed onto open letters to Mark Zuckerberg asking for these changes. The first one in Oct 2016 got the attention of Facebook’s Global Head of Policy, Joel Kaplan, who wrote a formal response to our demands. Kaplan essentially reiterated Facebook’s current positions and policies, without providing meaningful remedy or commitments to solving the problems raised in our letter.
So the coalition sent a second letter in Jan 2017 following Kaplan’s inadequate response, asking for a firm commitment to creating a public appeals process that works for its most vulnerable users. This letter, covered in the Guardian and other outlets, flagged a number of continuing issues (see excerpt below):
“Activists in the Movement for Black Lives have routinely reported the takedown of images discussing racism and during protests, with the justification that it violates Facebook’s Community Standards. At the same time, harassment and threats directed at activists based on their race, religion, and sexual orientation is thriving on Facebook. Many of these activists have reported such harassment and threats by users and pages on Facebook only to be told that they don’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards. Similar experiences have been reported by Facebook users from a variety of communities, yet your recent response indicates you are adequately addressing the problem. We disagree.”
Facebook denied our request for a meeting following this response. And by this point, our combined petitions racked up over 570,000 signatures from people around the world, all calling on Facebook to change their censorship policies and their compliance with law enforcement. We delivered these petitions to Facebook this week, following Mark Zuckerberg’s post about building global community.
The post mentions our campaign work several times, including in this paragraph:
"In the last year, the complexity of the issues we've seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community. We saw this in errors taking down newsworthy videos related to Black Lives Matter and police violence, and in removing the historical Terror of War photo from Vietnam. We've seen this in misclassifying hate speech in political debates in both directions -- taking down accounts and content that should be left up and leaving up content that was hateful and should be taken down. Both the number of issues and their cultural importance has increased recently.”
Though groups within the coalition are excited to see our campaign work permeating to the very top of Facebook's HQ, we are very concerned with some of the solutions being proposed.
Essentially, Zuckerberg will shift the ownership and liability back onto user communities under the guise of "democracy" for local communities. By leaving content standards in the hands of the "majority" in a given geographic context, this will have the effect in practice of perpetuating mob-mentality viewpoints, and exposing vulnerable minorities to additional violence, harassment, and censorship.
So this work isn’t done. And in the Trump era, it’s more important than ever that people can freely post coverage of protests and not have their data turned over to police, here in the U.S. and across the world.
While the work continues, I wanted to report back to this community that your voice matters. Sometimes it feels like signing a petition can have questionable impact, but often the petitions you sign are part of strategic campaigns — and having big numbers of people forces petition targets to listen to our demands. So thank you! Keep it up. We’ll keep you posted.
And if you’ve experienced Facebook’s censorship yourself, let us know in the comments. Thanks!