Facebook, like all intermediary hosts of social content, struggles with scalability of its community reporting features. On the platform, users may report content they find to be in violation of the site’s Terms of Service (TOS); they are then presented with five options (in image below):
On March 15, AllFacebook.com Editor Jackie Cohen called for, in so many words, the removal of a page on Facebook calling for an intifada (uprising) in the Palestinian territories. Specifically, Cohen wrote:
We’re very disturbed by a Facebook page calling for a third intifada against Israel to begin this May 5.
We reported the page to Facebook in almost the same communique in which we asked for comment about whether the site will respond to a flood of complaints about this subsite created by militant extremists.
Our query to the social network didn’t include whether the fact that the site’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg was born Jewish (so are we), and whether might influence any decision on what to do about the intifada page…
…We suspect efforts to avoid any appearance of biases might make it even harder for Facebook to decide what to do the continued stream of people clicking “report this page.”
The page presumably in question, entitled “Third Palestinian Intifada,” does indeed call for an uprising in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). On the info portion of the page, the organizers explain (translated from Arabic):
After the uprising of Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans, it is time for a Palestinian uprising.
The first Palestinian uprising was in 1987 and the second Palestinian uprisings was in the year 2000…we will decide the time for the third Palestinian uprising on this page…
…This page has been created at 03/06/2011 .. God willing we will reach million this week…it is time for the liberation of Palestine…
…If Facebook Blocked This Page .. All Muslims Will Boycott Facebook For Ever!
While Cohen is correct that comments on the page may be deemed in violation of Facebook’s TOS, such statements are made by individual members of the group and should be reported as such. Instead, Cohen calls for readers to report the page as offensive, despite the fact that the administrators appear not to have violated Facebook’s TOS.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. In early 2010, an Arabic-language group on Facebook calling for members to report Arab atheists for TOS violations succeeded in deactivating the accounts of several such users. And in November 2010, reports that the administrator of the now-famous “We Are All Khaled Said” group in Egypt was using a pseudonym (a violation of Facebook TOS) caused that group to be taken down for 24 hours, during a crucial pre-election period.
I documented many such examples of community policing–including on Facebook–in my 2010 paper for the OpenNet Initiative at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere.
As a private company, Facebook is entitled to enforce whatever TOS it desires. Unfortunately, the community reporting systems in place often make it easy for abuse of the system. Cohen’s use of a platform like AllFacebook.com to garner erroneous reports is a clear example of such abuse.
Facebook has been clear as to what speech it permits, and has chosen to define free expression in the broadest possible terms. While it draws the line on certain content–for example, photos of breastfeeding women have been taken down–the site has been clear that, without specific incitement to violence, content that could be considered “hate speech” by some is nonetheless permitted on the site.
Ultimately, Cohen has used wide support for Israel–as well as an invocation of anti-Semitism to describe Palestinian opposition to occupation–to mobilize her many readers into reporting a group that has apparently not violated Facebook’s TOS. Cohen should be reminded that “hate speech” does not mean speech she personally hates.