When Facebook decides which speech is welcome and who can be banned, democracy begins a slippery slide from its founding principles.
Nearly 80 percent of Americans use Facebook, and 400 new users sign up every minute. Facebook is the new town square. It is the marketplace of ideas. In terms of democracy, social movements and progress, Facebook is an essential organization and dissemination tool. In getting a message across, there is no way around the need to use social media generally, and Facebook specifically, because this is where the people are. The frightening reality, however, is that while social media appears to be a necessary platform for democracy, this platform is not public, it is not run by the government and, as such, it has not owed any adherence to the Bill of Rights. When Facebook decides which speech is welcome, which speakers can promote their messages, and who can be banned, its spurious effects on democracy are all but guaranteed.
I work with a group of remarkable women who encourage thoughtful drug policy and evidence-based marijuana law reform. We are professional women who want to bring integrity and rigor to one of the greatest policy disasters of the last century — the war on drugs. Our organization, the NORML Women of Washington, maintains Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. We post news articles, research discoveries, opportunities for public discourse with elected representatives and provocative questions. We don’t sell anything. We peddle ideas and information. And while that can only be as good as its content, it is also only as effective as its reach.
Now and then, social media platforms delete accounts of marijuana businesses and advocacy groups like ours. While our accounts have never been deleted (yet), our posts have been. I am not sure if Facebook has a coherent policy, but I am sure it wields great power. Recently, Facebook emailed NORML Women encouraging our group to boost posts, specifically one generating a particularly good reception. Facebook’s ad team eventually offered us $20 in free credits to boost our post. So, we engaged. We allowed Facebook to promote that post to demographics interested in marijuana legalization, law reform, freedom, justice and social movements. After two rounds of approvals by Facebook, the post went live. The results were immediate: All kinds of new folks were on our page, liking, following, sharing.
Two hours later, however, Facebook took down the post and retracted our credits for violating its policies of prohibited content. The post in question — the very post Facebook suggested we promote — linked to a Forbes article criticizing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ ignorance about marijuana. The post asked folks to remedy the knowledge deficit by sharing the solid facts on marijuana. There was no way to appeal Facebook’s decision. No review was available. The tension between the precise interests in the demographics we could target and Facebook’s viewpoint censorship was unsettling.
The first draft of the First Amendment did not include protections for freedom of speech. The freedom to assemble, however, was specifically included. Assembly is the critical right of social movements. It is precisely those who are trying to bring light to injustice who need assembly to amplify their voices. Today, assembly happens online. Our increasingly digitally-rich lives are lived in part on platforms like Facebook. What does democracy look like when Facebook, with its profit-centric intentions, decides which voices to open its doors to and whose voices it amplifies?
I believe that with Facebook’s great power must come great responsibility, and that responsibility is owed to the great nation that enabled its success. While the government is bound to protect the individual rights the Constitution guarantees, some courts have also required the same of corporations. For example, a company-owned town may owe the public access to its private town square for speech and assembly where it may not lawfully censor speech based on unpopular viewpoints. We need to ask what happens if we are not ready to require the same access in the digital commons.