Facebook Bans Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones, and Others: Revisiting Limited Free Speech

Facebook Bans Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones, and Others: Revisiting Limited Free Speech May 4, 2019
Photo by Con Karampelas on Unsplash

On Thursday, Facebook permanently banned individuals from its platform who were considered dangerous.  As a result of the social media giant’s effort to combat the spread of hate and violence through social media, the banned individuals included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen, and Milo Yiannopoulos.

According to CNN, a Facebook spokesperson noted that the decision came as a result of a lengthy process.

Factors included:

Whether the person or organization has ever called for violence against individuals based on race, ethnicity, or national origin; whether the person has been identified with a hateful ideology; whether they use hate speech or slurs in their about section on their social media profiles; and whether they have had pages or groups removed from Facebook for violating hate speech rules.

The decision has drawn criticism of censorship.

Facebook is not the United States government, making policies for the nation. It can create policies to limit speech within the context of the company.

A larger question is what autonomy does a private company has in its policies?  Likewise, at what point does the United States government intervene in these matters?  After all, we rely on the judicial system to help with determining when private companies engage in unlawful discrimination. Still, do we really want this kind of intervention? If we do desire this kind of intervention, to what extent?

Because I am in favor of limited free speech,  I believe a social contract coupling responsibility with freedom helps communities to thrive.

Free speech with limits can serve the greater good, albeit all people. For example, if you scream, “Fire,” in a crowded theater, your free speech rights will not be protected.

Therefore, I contend that a more careful analysis is needed about power and ideology in these conversations.  Diverse perspectives are needed to avoid an echo-chamber of one-sided beliefs about what constitutes hate.

How are critiques and opinions differentiated by hate?  How many times have you heard “hate” conflated with a difference of opinion? I have lost count.

Today, if you do not share the same belief, then those offended  can readily attach, “anti,” “phobia” or “ism” without much conversation.

It is common for people with limited interrogation of their  racial perspectives to consider it racist to challenge racism because doing so clashes with the colorblind ideologies that allows them to comfortably enjoy the benefits of a White supremacist society.

People can feel offended because the words are hateful, and we can also feel offended because the words strike a chord in us because they are true.

Also, people can feel “attacked” because they are challenged on their overt or covert behaviors that align with bigotry (even with good intentions).

Harassing, trolling, and calling people to do these things (and violence) because of hate do not align with my beliefs.  I do not seek to create a space that encourages hate. So, I can understand the challenge Facebook has with creating  limited free speech spaces void of proliferating hate speech.

In order to avoid over-simplistic determinations of  “hate” by looking at comments/statements within a  decontextualized vacuum,  I  argue that we need to situate each case to examine the immediate,  historical, economic, political, and social context surrounding the person/organization and statements.

For instance, if a Latinx woman criticizes the White patriarchy within the US, a thorough analysis of content and motive from a macro to micro level of power dynamics will be more useful instead of automatically categorizing her commentary as anti-White and anti-male.

As a Latinx woman, she does not have the social, material and political privilege in this country to wield power over these groups. Most likely, she is responding to an oppressive structure that has been normalized through smiles and good people and the hateful work of extremists.

I think recognizing the racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and other forms of oppressive structures at work in our society helps to makes it clearer that all people do not hold the same kinds of  social, political, and economic power and influence. We are still working on creating an even-playing field.  Until then, the imaginary one that some people have created is insufficient and problematic. And this truth needs to be considered in decisions.

I think Facebook is trying to figure out how to allow space for multitude of expressions, while also creating healthy boundaries to preserve freedom and community in an open platform.

Boundaries can be a good thing because with freedom, speech and deed, comes much responsibility.

Communities, online and in real life, can be co-constructed  where people have different opinions without overstepping the lines into destructive behavior.

As for Facebook, what will these lines look like moving forward, and how will they be determined? The same questions apply to each of us in how we choose to live our freedoms on Facebook and everywhere.

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