The Risk of Facebook Activism in the New Arab Public Sphere

Over at The Arabist, Issandr El Amrani ruminates on Facebook’s role in Middle Eastern politics, a subject I’ve had my eye on for quite some time.  Drawing on the recent example of Egyptian reformer El Baradei and his enormous Facebook following, El Amrani marvels at the level of Facebook use for activism in the region.

He’s definitely right–from Morocco and Tunisia, where Facebook has become a tool to support threatened bloggers to Syria, where the government blocks the site, allegedly because of its organizing properties, Facebook is being used for political purposes.  As for the region’s Facebook use, the numbers speak for themselves: According to one site, Morocco, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all boast over 1 million users, and Egypt has over 2 million, among the developing world’s largest markets (for comparison, China has just over 50,000 users; Brazil 2 million; and India about 4 million).

The downfall, of course, is Facebook itself, which has garnered a reputation for selectively enforcing its own TOS (see my latest Advox piece, “Facebook Removes Moroccan Secularist Group and its Founder,” from which this piece borrows a few thoughts).

Although the site’s terms of service (TOS) ban everything from nudity, to speech deemed hateful, to using a pseudonym to open an account, they are selectively enforced. In mid-2009 Facebook officials stated that they would not delete Holocaust denial groups outright despite pressure from Jewish groups, but only a few months earlier deleted accounts of users who posted photographs of themselves breastfeeding their babies. Other groups that have been allowed to remain include a pro-rape group called “Define Statutory,” left up for two months despite numerous calls for its removal. A quick search on Facebook uncovers numerous groups undoubtedly in violation of the TOS: There’s one called “I Hate Those Jews and Mindless Sluttt Bags, But Mainly Jews,” with 249 members; another called “Fuck Islam” boasts nearly 2,000 members.

In fact, a number of Facebook groups advocating for violence have been allowed to remain…there’s Kill all terrorists!!!, kill aLL pedOphILES, kill all the damn bastards….that hurt animals!!!!, who ever kills a cop should die, and so on.  There are numerous groups advocating for the bombing of Iran, though I imagine that a similar group calling for the bombing of, well, almost any other country, would be rapidly deleted.  In other words, Facebook selectively applies their TOS to what’s popular and politically correct at any given time.

The TOS appear only to be enforced when enough users report a group as inappropriate, and once a group is removed, its creators often find it impossible to get it back. Users whose personal accounts are removed sometimes create a new account, only to find it deleted again soon afterward.

As I mentioned on Advox, Moroccan activist Kacem El Ghazzali recently found that his own account had been deleted, only two days after complaining to Facebook about the removal of a group he had created which advocated for the separation of religion and education in the Arab world.  El Ghazzali reported having received emails from Muslims opposing the group shortly before it was taken down.  I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook was responding to Moroccan government pressure; two years ago, when Fouad Mourtada was arrested for creating a fake profile of Moroccan Prince Moulay Rachid, many speculated that Facebook had turned his information over to the government (Facebook neither confirmed nor denied the accusation).

To me, this incident is foreboding, and sets a frightening tone for the numerous activists across the region who use Facebook to organize protests and political groups.  Activists in the Arab world often face multiple risks: Not just the deletion of their Facebook group or profile, but the risk of having one’s information turned over to their local authorities, who might consider their online statements criminal.  And this is all assuming Facebook isn’t blocked by their own government already.

And yet, I shouldn’t be surprised.  In early 2009, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza, many activists reported that news articles and photos had gone missing from their Facebook walls.  Others were prohibited from posting articles to their own walls if too many users had deemed the article inappropriate (see inane example below).

It would appear Facebook fancies itself a democracy: users report things they deem offensive, and when enough do so, the Facebook leaders listen and remove it.  And yet, offensiveness is quite clearly in the eye of the beholder (see my post on hate speech).  The above image shows the error message I was met with when attempting to post a piece by Boston Globe columnist and grammarian Jan Freeman.  The post was about the word “fuck,” yet never mentioned it by name, instead substituting in “the f-word.”  Somewhere, someone (or likely, several someones) found that offensive and reported it, thus making it impossible for me to share it with my friends on Facebook (fun fact: if you use a URL shortener, you can get around the ban).

My friend and colleague Ethan Zuckerman has written about social media as the new public sphere in the context of free speech, saying “If we adopt the public sphere approach, we want to open any technologies that allow public communication and debate – blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and virtually anything else that fits under the banner of Web 2.0.”

Facebook undoubtedly fits into that category, thus what it comes down to is this: If Facebook desires to be at the forefront of said public sphere, it needs to adopt a set of principles that will allow people to use it without fear of deletion, or of having their information turned over to authorities.  If it doesn’t, then my recommendation to activists using Facebook would be to take their business–and their safety, security, and privacy–elsewhere.

31 replies on “The Risk of Facebook Activism in the New Arab Public Sphere”

Great post.

I have a comment about one underlying premise: “Facebook selectively applies their TOS to what’s popular and politically correct at any given time.”

Clearly there is a kind of censorship roulette at work, but I disagree that the selectivity is based too much in reality.

In most cases the censorship problem is far less predictable, I fear. Facebook is growing at an astonishing rate — from 20 million users on 2007 to more than 400 million today.

Many of the bizarre behaviors of Facebook censors become much more understandable in this context; at this rate of growth, I simply don’t think that they are capable of implementing their own TOS.

At Facebook there is a team of young censors that are working with a great deal of independence and power, rapidly taking down content on intuition and whim — most of it quite indifferent to political subtleties. In this context, for the purposes of this critique, I believe we should think less about “Facebook” and more about “Facebook employees.”

Furthermore, these are normal people, most of them lightly trained, multitasking, working extremely fast, perhaps addled by Red Bull or IM’ing with their friends, and otherwise spoiled rotten by Silicon Valley sunshine. Their managers are probably too busy looking for new hires to give them meaningful oversight.

Facebook users produce 5 *billion* pieces of content each week. It is tough to imagine something at this size.

But, just quickly here, let’s try: Facebook will be at most about 2,000 people this year. If we assume a generous half of those are involved in censorship and implementing the TOS, then an unlucky team of 1,000 censors is still dwarfed by a firehose of 5 billion items — each theoretical censor is thus dealing with 5 million theoretical posts each week.

Regardless of their motivations, it becomes difficult *not* to imagine that there would be egregiously selective implementation of the TOS.

Most relevantly for activists, based on the platform’s rate of growth, we should not expect this censorship roulette to improve — no network operating at this size can give a coherent and consistent implementation if its ideals. After all, a team of 1,000 loosely organized, politically insensitive censors is just as scary to me as a lockstep corporation.

The automated censorship that you have illustrated is probably an indicator of some very nasty dynamics to come. Facebook will not suddenly become a standard-bearer for public discourse when it has 1 billion users. Algorithms will increasingly define the borders of free speech at these Wal-Mart sized town halls.

Overall, for the purposes of analyzing patterns of censorship, I believe it is problematic to conflate political selectivity with corporate incompetence. And I fear that the latter may have equally frightening implications for activists.

Thank you Chris, for adding to the conversation.

I suspect that on most of these cases, you’re absolutely right. Facebook is not China; its censors are likely disorganized and poorly trained indeed.

At the same time, I think we agree that whether it’s political selectivity or corporate incompetence, Facebook needs to rise to the occasion and start dealing with these issues or risk losing their spot as a top social networking platform and particularly, its role in activism (though frankly, I’m sure they’d be happier without the activists–less work for them).

Great post Jillian, excellent arguments Chris!

There is also the possibility that those who complained about that Moroccan secularist group could have threatened to resort to (cyber) terrorism and maybe Facebook caved in to their demands.
In any case, it would be great to see Facebook explain their position on this matter.

[…] Facebook requires that you are an identified user to use any of its services. No, you cannot even be pseudonymous. You have to be a registered and identified user before you can do anything. See Jillian York’s meticulous researching and reporting on the impact of Facebook’s terms of service on advocacy work and activists, particularly “The Risk of Facebook Activism in the New Arab Public Sphere.” […]

In April of 2004, as the insurgency in Iraq was steadily worsening, President Bush met with Tony Blair and reportedly floated the idea of bombing the headquarters of al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. Bush had his reasons: The satellite network, after all, was at the time single-handedly shaping the outcome of the battle against insurgents in Fallujah, by broadcasting images of violence and civilian casualties from inside the besieged city to its 200 million viewers across the Middle East, eventually forcing the U.S. military to withdraw from the city in the face of widespread protests.

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