That’s the name of a paper I’m getting ready to publish (hopefully) next week. As I’ve written before, Facebook has, in numerous cases in various countries, deleted accounts, groups, or content put on their site by activists. From Hong Kong, where activists have written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg complaining of Facebook’s harassment and deactivation of activists, to Morocco, where some activists have been deleted from the site, asked for identification in order to reinstate their accounts, then received no assistance upon sending said identification, Facebook users are fed up.
As Rebecca notes on her blog, a number of excellent audience and panelist suggestions arose from the panel:
* Automated moderation and abuse-prevention processes will inevitably result in mistakes that hurt activists. Human judgment – informed by adequate knowledge of cultures, languages, and political events around the world – needs to be brought into the mix.
* Companies need to be as transparent and open as possible about how their takedown, moderation, and suspension procedures work. Otherwise they have nobody but themselves to blame if users cease to trust them.
* Companies should designate staff members to focus on human rights. Their job should be to develop channels for regular communication with the human rights community.
* It’s almost impossible for globally popular social networking and content-sharing services to hire enough staff with enough knowledge of political movements and disputes in all obscure corners of the world in all kinds of languages. But communities like Global Voices and others with large networks of bloggers and online activists all over the world are ready and willing to help companies keep abreast of political hot-button issues and online movements around the world – and even provide help with obscure languages – so that extra care can be taken, and political activism won’t be mistaken for spam or some other form of abusive behavior. We just need to figure out how to set up workable mechanisms through which this kind of feedback, advice, and communication can take place.
* Activists need to pay closer attention the Terms of Service used by social networking platforms, and be more proactive in educating themselves about how moderation, takedown, and abuse-prevention mechanisms work. We probably need a “Guide to avoiding account suspension and takedown for human rights activists.”
* It might also be good to have some kind of respected clearing house organization – or consortium of organizations – which can help mediate and resolve problems between activists and companies.
* People who rely on social networking and content sharing platforms run by companies to do political and social activism should engage more actively with company administrators to improve policies and practices. Anticipate problems and help solve them not only for yourself but for everybody else in the community. Act like a citizen. Not a passive “user.”
These issues are arising at a time when “ordinary” (non-activist) users of Facebook are up in arms about the company’s many affronts to privacy: the ACLU has set up a petition. There’s a Facebook Day of Inaction planned for June 6. The EU is pissed. There’s also a Quit Facebook Day planned for May 31, but as the SF Chronicle points out, it’s not particularly gaining traction.
As many of us in this sphere have noted, there’s a reason for that: You can’t take it with you, and by “it” I mean your network. Facebook has become so embedded in many of our lives that, though there are alternatives (MySpace, orkut, Twitter, etc.), few of them measure up to the network offered by Facebook. Truth be told, Facebook’s services aren’t all that great; it’s photo-uploader crashes Firefox constantly, and I’ve heard nary a positive anecdote about the new Community pages. What Facebook offers is your network, in one, simple, easily-accessed place. Or as Lokman Tsui notes, “Facebook effectively holds our friends as hostages. The ransom is not our privacy, but our freedom.”
I’ve watched over the past few months as a number of privacy-minded friends have abandoned Facebook for greener pastures. Some, like Lokman, have decided to stick with Twitter and the old-fashioned keeping-in-touch method known as e-mail. Others have sought alternatives, like the up-and-coming Diaspora. Still others have no alternative in mind, and just want out.
Though I think Lokman and others have great points, I’m not sure I’m ready to leave Facebook. Though I wouldn’t miss its services (or privacy violations) at all, I tend to think that this is one area where engagement (vs. sanctions, to use Rebecca’s analogy) makes sense. The Quit Facebook Day is a nice idea, but its implementation doesn’t come with principled demands (or transparency, for that matter–we don’t know who’s behind the campaign).
From the numerous examples of account deactivations I’ve received in my inbox over the course of the past few weeks, here’s what I’m noticing: All of these activists still want to use Facebook. Why? I don’t have all the answers, but I would surmise that it’s because Facebook is where the people are. Facebook is blocked by the Syrian government, yet a quick search by location for “Syria” tells me there are more than 500 users based there (and I’m willing to bet it’s actually many more). People are, for whatever reason (be it cute cats or life-or-death issues) climbing over walls to get to Facebook.
I’ve been involved in a number of Facebook-based campaigns myself, many of which were not based in the U.S. I’m not one to argue that Facebook is the be-all end-all activism tool, or that it’s changing the world, but the fact of the matter is, activists use Facebook for successful organizing. Whether it’s simply to bring a group of like-minded people together to discuss potential campaigns, or to raise money for a shared goal, or otherwise, it’s happening. If I leave Facebook, can I still support these people? If I ditch my 1,000+ Facebook network, can I still reach the same contacts?
And so, while it’s all well and good to have a Quit Facebook Day, that doesn’t begin to address the myriad issues that Facebook users are facing globally, be they activists or otherwise. Instead, perhaps the solution is to talk to Facebook users and find out what it is that’s keeping them there, then do the best we can to encourage those changes within Facebook.