Without giving a warning or any specific reason, Facebook purged a number of "far-right extremists" from its platform this week. Paul Joseph Watson, Milo Yiannopolous, Alex Jones, and Laura Loomer were all summarily banished. Louis Farrakhan was also given the boot — though he is not, despite media claims, in any way "far-right."
This ban reaches farther than anything we've yet seen. Facebook and Instagram will neither allow links to their content nor mentions of any events they attend. According to the The Atlantic, the only Infowars content permitted on either platform is that which expressly condemns Infowars:
Infowars is subject to the strictest ban. Facebook and Instagram will remove any content containing Infowars videos, radio segments, or articles (unless the post is explicitly condemning the content), and Facebook will also remove any groups set up to share Infowars content and events promoting any of the banned extremist figures, according to a company spokesperson. (Twitter, YouTube, and Apple have also banned Jones and Infowars.)
The social media conglomerate offered only vague justifications for this move. It claimed that the targeted people are guilty of "hate" and "violence," and are therefore "dangerous." As for evidence of this dangerous hate and violence, it gave only a few rather bizarre examples. From the BBC:
It said Alex Jones had hosted on his programme Gavin McInnes, leader of the Proud Boys, whose members are known for racist, anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Mr McInnes has been designated a "hate figure" by Facebook.
Facebook said this year Milo Yiannopoulos had publicly praised both Mr McInnes and English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, both banned from the network.
Laura Loomer also appeared with Mr McInnes, and Facebook said she also praised another banned figure, Faith Goldy, a Canadian.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was banned for making several anti-Semitic remarks earlier this year.
Apparently it is a violation of Facebook’s policies to speak positively anywhere in public about people Facebook doesn’t like. Yiannopolous has been banned not for promoting Gavin McInnes on Facebook, but for expressing positive opinions about him in public. Can I then be banned for writing this article questioning the decision to ban these newly dubbed "hate figures?" I suppose I'll find out soon enough.
Indeed, it is impossible to know ahead of time whether you are operating according to the rules or in defiance of them, because the rules are intentionally obscure. What counts as "hate"" What is "extreme?" Which ideas are "dangerous?" Well, we can only try and narrow it down by the process of elimination.
Hamas and Hezbollah must not be considered "hateful" because they still have Facebook pages. This burlesque performer posted a picture of herself half-naked with a young girl stuffing dollar bills into her underwear while the girl's parents watched and cheered. She still has a page, so I guess the exploitation and abuse of children is not "dangerous," according to Facebook. Speaking of which, this 11-year-old drag queen has a page, though dressing a child in drag seems both dangerous and "extreme" by any objective standard. PETA is extreme. The Animal Liberation Front is extreme. The National Abortions Rights Action League is extreme. Michael Moore is extreme. Sarah Silverman is extreme. Al Sharpton is extreme. Bill Maher is extreme. Everybody at the Daily Kos and Think Progress is extreme. All of these people and organizations, and the hundreds similar to them, are not only extreme but often quite hateful, yet their Facebook presence has not been interrupted by either bans or suspensions.
It seems that Facebook is operating with the same definition of "extremism" and "hatred" as the above-cited left-wing extremists themselves. If they were really interested in enforcing some objective and fair set of rules, they wouldn't have waited to issue all of these bans at the same time, as part of one big P.R. spectacle. If Alex Jones were going to be banned for spreading the insane and evil Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, Facebook would have made that move five years ago. If Yiannopolous or Watson or Loomer really did something that violates the terms of service (and, in Watson's case especially, I have no clue what that could possibly be), then they would have been kicked off the platform in response to that specific violation. Instead, Facebook handled it this way because the real "violation" is political. Whether these individuals can rightly be described as "extremist" or not, their only sin, in Facebook's eyes, is that their alleged extremism falls on the right end of the political spectrum. The extremists and hateful bigots on the Left — of which there are many — have been granted full immunity.
Two questions now arise: (1) Is Facebook correct to censor people based on politics?; and (2) Does Facebook have the moral right to censor people based on politics?
The answer to the first question is obviously no. A social media giant with over a billion users suppressing speech is far more dangerous than a right-winger expressing his views in a blog post or a YouTube video. Facebook's underhanded, dishonest, and absurdly biased actions should be condemned by anyone who cares about the free and open expression of ideas (an increasingly small group, perhaps).
The answer to the second question is more complicated. One thing I can say for sure is that Facebook does not have the right to smear and libel anyone. If they are going to publicly label someone like Paul Joseph Watson "dangerous," "hateful," and "violent," they must provide evidence for that description. Otherwise they are baselessly defaming him, and that defamation, coming as it does from one of the most powerful companies in the world, will certainly have a negative impact on his life and professional career.
Leaving aside the libelous aspect of the matter, the question of whether or not Facebook has the moral or legal right to censor as it sees fit really comes down to category. What is Facebook? Is it a public utility, like a phone company? Is it just a "platform?" If so, what is a platform and how exactly can it be distinguished from a utility? Could a phone company claim that it is just a platform for phone calls? And if a platform makes editorial decisions about the content it publishes — such as allowing only negative references to Infowars — then hasn't it actually become more of a publisher than a platform? And if it's a publisher, then isn't it responsible for everything posted to the site — such as that picture of the young girl and the burlesque dancer?
I don't know the answers to all of these questions. But I do know that Facebook can't weave around the cones forever, never defining itself or explaining what it is and how it operates. Facebook has to be one thing or the other or the other. It can't be all three. And whatever it decides to be, ultimately, it must accept the responsibilties that come with that.