When we post a briefing highlighting a Facebook page promoting hate we often get asked “Isn’t there a free speech issue here?” Yes, there are; two in fact.

Facebook’s Free Speech

One free speech issue is that Facebook has a free speech right to decide what is, and what is not, allowed on their social media platform. As Facebook is a US company, this right is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution which prevents even the US Government from interfering with it.

Facebook lets users of their platform know their “house rules” in a document called the Community Standards. Those standards prohibit hate speech. That was Facebook’s choice. They could just as easily have allowed hate speech and banned pictures of cats. It is fairly obvious why they instead allowed the cats and banned the hate. Both decisions lead to a better experience on Facebook for the vast majority of people.

Facebook has the right to make this choice.

The free speech of Facebook users

People may have a right to free speech in some countries, but they do not have a right to use Facebook. Facebook may refuse access to anyone they like, remove any content they dislike, or terminate access to their service at any time.

When Facebook, at it’s discretion, allows people to use their platform, they do so subject to the people agreeing to their rules. These rules limit what can and what cannot be done on Facebook.

Anything which is not prohibited by law, or by Facebook’s rules, is permitted so long as Facebook doesn’t decide to disallow it. Users have the right to speak out against hate speech on Facebook – we have this confirmed to us in communications with Facebook. This is known as counter speech. Users also have a right to tell Facebook when they believe the Facebook system is being abused. This is called reporting and Facebook provides tools to facilitate it.

Those who try to stop others speaking out against hate speech by arguing its censorship are themselves trying to promote self censorship. This is at best hypocritical for people claiming to promote free speech. Censorship of counter speech would allow hate speech to run rampant on a platform like Facebook.

If hate speech ran rampant, it would force those the hate was directed against to leave what would then become a very hostile environment. This would limit the power of social media to the group who spread the hate and excluded everyone else. This is the general tactic of fascism not just in social media but in society at large.

Why is counter speech a form of free speech?

Generally only Facebook can remove content from Facebook. Users who campaign to have content removed are simply speaking, they have no power to act and make it happen. They have no power to censor content on Facebook. Counter speech can therefore not be censorship, it can only be a form of speech.
Why is what OHPI does counter speech?

Given Facebook have let us know their rules, we can all help Facebook ensure those rules are kept. OHPI does this by documenting breaches of the rules. Our supporters help by reporting those breaches so Facebook sees them. Facebook reviews the reports and decides if they agree the rules were broken. If they agree, the content is removed by Facebook and Facebook’s free speech right to decide what is on their social media platform is maintained.

Those who complain about this process are really taking issue with Facebook’s rules and their prohibition on using Facebook to promote hate. If we documented a page, and our supporters reported it, and Facebook disagreed and felt it wasn’t hate speech, the page would never come down in the first place. It is Facebook, and Facebook alone, who ultimately remove content.

Those who disagree with Facebook’s decision to remove their page are entitled to their views, but they may not be entitled to use Facebook to spread these views. They are certainly not entitled to simply recreate the page. If they do this it will be removed again and they may find their account suspended as well.

Complaining about OHPI entirely misses the point, which is that the way they were trying to use Facebook is simply not permitted. They are like a driver who insists on driving down the wrong side of the road and blames the public who call the radio about it, blame the radio who warn people to be careful, then blame the police who hear the radio and try to make the car stop. A driver like that has no one to blame but themselves.

Do something to help!

You can help us counter hate in social media by sharing this briefing.

If you haven’t yet joined us, you can also help by becoming one of our supporters on our Facebook page. From there you can help with reporting and other activities. You can also stay informed about our work by joining our mailing list for a monthly update. You can of course also donate to support us (we are after all a charity and entirely reliant on donations to cover our operating costs) or simply spread the word by telling people about us. We have a huge task ahead of us and all help is greatly appreciated.