Insulting a foreign head of state will soon no longer be an offence in the Netherlands. But on Facebook, it still is. Erdogan cartoons by Ruben L. Oppenheimer aren’t welcome on the online platform, and a satirical poem about Erdogan written by journalist Annabel Nanninga was sent to the digital waste bin too. Technology expert and jurist Danny Mekić gives his views on the sustainability of Facebook’s regulations.
A cartoon showing Erdogan humping the Twitter bird was banned from Facebook at first. Later on, the platform apologised and allowed it anyway.
Danny: “Don’t ask me how that works… It’s not really clear to anyone how Facebook decides what is and isn’t allowed. What we know is that a user usually has to file a complaint before something is removed. It’s partly algorithmic too. If a lot of users report the same post, that post is taken down sooner. You could see that in action when American journalist Alison Parker was murdered by a former colleague, who then put a video of the murder online. That video was taken down in minutes.”
Facebook’s regulations say satire is allowed, but Annabel Nanninga’s poem about Erdogan was still removed. Now Facebook says they’re “trying to find out whether it’s satire or not”.
Danny: “This is unusual. Normally, decisions about what to do with a reported post are taken within 24 hours. This goes to show that Facebook definitely does take the commotion in the Netherlands seriously. At the same time, it also shows exactly what is so tricky about the platform’s regulations: there’s a political side to them. Hate speech and insults are not allowed, for example, but those terms are open to interpretation. What is and isn’t hate speech depends on your country and culture. Facebook is playing judge and imposes its conservative American morals on all its users. This isn’t sustainable any more.”
Why is that?
Danny: “Facebook has become an internet in itself. It’s developed from just a digital photo album into a journalistic platform that serves a public utility function. Besides that, Facebook has crawled into our personal lives like a parasite, and now we can’t and don’t want to go a moment without talking to each other any more. It’s grown into a town square, except in a town square there is no commercial organisation that dictates what you are and aren’t allowed to say. Imagine being on the phone with someone and suddenly having your connection cut off because your phone provider thinks you’ve said something improper. Or that what you’re trying to say doesn’t even reach the other person.”
But if you don’t like Facebook’s regulations, you can just leave the platform, can’t you?
Danny: “You could. But in my opinion, that doesn’t absolve Facebook from a certain moral responsibility. Now that their platform has become so big and important, that also gives them the responsibility to facilitate users with different values from their own. What’s happening now is positively farcical. Facebook is taking the Pavlov approach to a whole new level. They don’t just arbitrarily decide what’s permissible and what isn’t, but even punish users for making posts that aren’t permitted by banning them from the platform for a day, a month or even forever. That can be a terrible loss; you’d lose your social network and lose access to your personal messages and photos. Facebook is using its power to police its users’ behaviour, and by doing so, it changes society.”
What do you think Zuckerberg should do?
Danny: “He should maintain the national laws of every individual country. You can’t use one standard for seven billion people. Facebook should do what Twitter does. Twitter doesn’t show certain tweets in certain countries because they would violate the laws there. But they do show that there’s a tweet they’re not showing, whereas on Facebook there’s no way to know what posts have been deleted.”
This article was written by and published in the Dutch Volkskrant newspaper.