Could Facebook officials censor religious content? Many people say they already do

Have you ever been in “Facebook jail?” Censored if you try to start dialogue about something that’s religiously or ethically noxious?

I’m spotlighting a very interesting Washington Post piece about the inner workings of Facebook, which in my mind are harder to figure out than a CIA organizational chart. For the sake of this blog, we’re interested in news coverage of the religion part of this equation and what this has to do with the power that Facebook has over a good portion of the globe.

An accompanying photo shows Zahra Billoo, a hijab-clad woman who is the executive director of the San Francisco office of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. So, two weeks after Trump was elected, 

Billoo ... posted to Facebook an image of a handwritten letter mailed to a San Jose mosque and quoted from it: “He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
The post -- made to four Facebook accounts -- contained a notation clarifying that the statement came from hate mail sent to the mosque, as Facebook guidelines advise.
 “I couldn’t tolerate just sitting with it and being silent,” Latour said in an interview. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin, like my kids’ innocence was stolen in the blink of an eye.”
Facebook removed the post from two of the accounts -- Billoo’s personal page and the council’s local chapter page -- but allowed identical posts to remain on two others -- the organization’s national page and Billoo’s public one. The civil rights attorney was baffled. After she re-posted the message on her personal page, it was again removed, and Billoo received a notice saying she would be locked out of Facebook for 24 hours.
“How am I supposed to do my work of challenging hate if I can’t even share information showing that hate?” she said.
Billoo eventually received an automated apology from Facebook, and the post was restored to the local chapter page -- but not her personal one.

In the past, I’ve tried calling Facebook officials for comment when reporting on various topics and getting anyone to answer my calls has been nearly impossible. I think I succeeded once. I'm amazed that Billoo got through to anyone.

But in making decisions about the limits of free speech, Facebook often fails the racial, religious and sexual minorities (Facebook chief executive Mark) Zuckerberg says he wants to protect.
The 13-year-old social network is wrestling with the hardest questions it has ever faced as the de facto arbiter of speech for the third of the world’s population that now logs on each month.

That’s 2 billion people, folks.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in this piece, most of which is more toward posts that have to do with racism rather than religion. But there’s some holes in the story. For instance, Facebook tends to censor anything that one group finds offensive and asks questions later, which opens the door to huge amounts of abuse.

As one person in the Post comments section noted, it only takes a small group of people to claim they are offended to get a post removed. That writer cited posts by ex-Muslims, which get deleted after Muslims contact Facebook to say they’re offended by people they consider to be Islamophobic.

Facebook staffers apparently never checks to see if such a claim is true. Instead, the moderators go by mob rule: If enough people consider certain types of groups or posts to be offensive, then things just vanish.

I saw this happen while covering Facebook posts by Pentecostals who handle snakes in their services. One such couple was on a reality show and suddenly their posts were zapped off Facebook simply because some opponents claimed their posts were offensive. The attacks were relentless and there appeared to be no factchecking on Facebook’s part as to the veracity of the accusations.

The article does say this:

The company says it now ­deletes about 288,000 hate-speech posts a month.
But activists say that Facebook’s censorship standards are so unclear and biased that it is impossible to know what one can or cannot say.

As a ProPublica document referenced in the Post article states, the work of Facebook’s minions amount to “the most far-reaching global censorship operation in history.” It not only affects speech on race and politics but sex, violence, religion and much more.

There’s a lot more out there that could be written about religious groups whose content has been erased by Facebook because someone deems it offensive. This leaves unpopular beliefs wide open for trolls to do their work.

I'm not saying Facebook wants to shut off all religious talk. Far from it: The Daily Dot has a piece out there about the five most religious pages on Facebook. Christians dominate this social network.

My most recent master’s thesis/project was on the serpent handlers and their Facebook use, so there’s plenty of religion stories therein to mine for those who have the patience and time to monitor peoples’ feeds. Judging by the Post piece, the story is not only about what's appearing in Facebook but also what's not allowed to appear.

Does an organization that monitors the posts of one-third of the planet have anyone on staff versed in religious language or doctrine?

Journalists: That's the next news story that needs to be done. 

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