The internet has been billed as the great equalizer, breaking down barriers and giving voice to millions. At the same time, it has allowed for abuse online – whether in the form of hate, harassment or offensive content.
The freedom to express is an essential democratic principle, but should it persist unfettered? How and where should we draw the line, and who – or what – should play a role in moderating online debate?
Today, Facebook’s Hard Questions, a series that explores the most challenging issues Facebook confronts, hosted a discussion about the line between hate and debate, featuring a diverse range of views. Moderated by Andrew McLaughlin, the co-founder of Higher Ground Labs and Former Deputy CTO at The White House, the panel includes: Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management; Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Media Justice Network; Daniella Greenbaum, formerly a reporter at Business Insider; and Geoff King, journalist and lecturer at UC Berkeley. See the full discussion and highlights below.
Monika Bickert on how Facebook thinks about free expression…
“We want Facebook to be a place where people can express themselves. It is about connecting people. It is about giving people a place where they can share things with one another and learn from one another. […]”
“We know that people won’t come to Facebook if it’s not a safe place. We actually do have these guide rails in the form of our Community Standards that tell people ‘this is where we draw the line.’ And we draw the line in most cases because we think that speech might lead to real world harm. […]”
“We don’t allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment where people feel personally attacked, where they won’t feel comfortable coming and sharing themselves. But it’s really hard to define hate speech. […] When we think about how to define it, we think about what constitutes a personal attack. […]”
“The one thing that we don’t remove is where someone simply asserts something false. What we do is try to counter the virality of such content or try to promote or make visible other views.”
The panelists on how Facebook should draw the lines…
“The more that Facebook can adhere to free expression principles, including international guidelines, essentially international law taken on voluntarily, the more robust, uninhibited and wide open debate will be.” – Geoff King
“Whether we’re talking about Facebook, Google, any of these other companies […] at the very top are groups of mostly white people making decisions about whether or not speech is violent, whether or not speech is dangerous. And I have to say that they’re making decisions in their own interest. […] If we’re going to live in an economic system where the public square has been so deeply privatized, then I absolutely expect those private companies to take on decisions that protect all the people.” – Malkia Cyril
“More than 80% of [Facebook’s] users live outside the United States. So if they’re going to adopt any sort of governmental system, it certainly doesn’t need to be [the US]. I do think it’s a good system and it preserves freedom of speech, which I see as an important right and social good. But beyond that, I think that Facebook has this incredible opportunity to be a platform for debate and engagement.” – Daniella Greenbaum
“There are some things where we’re all going to agree. We’ll all agree that you don’t want child sexual abuse imagery online…. But it’s when you get to these edges, around things like hate speech, around what constitutes an actual threat of violence, what constitutes actual harassment or bullying that’s where the conversations are the most difficult and also where the enforcement is the most difficult.” – Monika Bickert
On whether Holocaust denial should be allowed on Facebook…
“There is a classical liberal view of free speech that political debate be uninhibited, robust and wide open. […] That said, Facebook, again, is under no obligation legally to allow that on their platform, and I think that’s largely Facebook’s call, but if Facebook is going to make that decision, it needs to have clarity around its decision, it needs to have transparency around it.” – Geoff King
“It’s not about speech, it’s about power. People are actually dying on the streets because of the speech that’s taking place online. So let me be clear about it, it’s not a question of whether an individual has a right to say whatever’s on their mind. That’s a strict US constitutionalist view of the question of free speech, that’s not my view of free speech. […] What I care about is whether or not anti-Semitic crimes are going up as a direct result of people on a platform allowing individuals to organize criminal activity online.” – Malkia Cyril
“Trying to eradicate bad ideas from platforms is not going to succeed at eradicating these ideas from the world. So I’d rather have more room — whether it’s on Reddit or Facebook or platforms that don’t even exist today — for bad ideas to aired and challenged and debated and brought to light so that we can actually engage in meaningful debate and hope that reason will prevail.” – Daniella Greenbaum
“If somebody promotes the idea of the Holocaust or violence of any sort, we remove that. If somebody engages in anti-Semitic speech by saying ‘Jewish people are…’ and applying a dehumanizing label, [we would remove that]. If somebody mocks survivors or victims of the Holocaust, any of that would violate our hate speech policies. And we also block the speech where countries have told us, ‘this is illegal in our country,’ — then we will remove that speech in that country alone. […] Even if it is a horrible assertion of falsity, whether it’s about the Holocaust or any other world even, we don’t remove content simply for being false.” – Monika Bickert
On who’s affected by the debate over free expression…
“The decision-makers around what speech is allowed and what speech is not are the same people that benefit from that reality. So how do we end up with fairness under those conditions when that is what is happening?” – Malkia Cyril
“Especially for marginalized communities, especially for minorities, especially for groups that are targets of oppression, we need to be supporting the broadest possible speech in the hopes that that speech will be used — and again, this is an optimistic note — in order to stop oppression, in order to help marginalized communities and in order to ensure that minorities always have a voice and a platform on which to say ‘what’s happening here is not okay.’” – Daniella Greenbaum
“Often times with censorship, […] it’s often not the powerful loudest voices, the people with the most access, who end up being affected by those policies, but those policies tend to often times be used against people who don’t have political power, not the dominant ideology.” – Geoff King