Facebook's COVID-Protest Ban Renews Censorship Concerns
Facebook’s growing power over the public square is back in the news this week as the company announced it is banning the promotion of certain kinds of back-to-work protest events on its platform. While the company’s previous bans have largely focused on blocking digital speech it finds objectionable, the move to thwart protests in the physical world underscores just how central the social media giant has become to the expression of democracy and just how much power it now wields over even our physical lives.
On Monday, the company began removing certain posts intended to organize rallies protesting government stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus epidemic. A spokesperson confirmed that “events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook” and that it was removing content promoting or organizing such rallies.
As part of its efforts, the company “reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders” and to “remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful.”
In cases where state governments still permit socially distanced protests, Facebook is allowing the events to be organized on its platform as long as the protest explicitly requires all participants to maintain social distance. The company didn’t clarify whether it would remove protest events in states with stay-at-home orders that do not explicitly permit protests other than to note that it would remove any events running contrary to the guidance of state officials.
The outsized role Facebook plays today in organizing in-person rallies again reminds us that it is no longer just a place for friends to share family photos and chat online. It is now the de facto town square through which democratic societies communicate with their elected officials and organize demonstrations when they feel those officials no longer represent their interests.
That a private company can now unilaterally decide to simply delete the promotion of protests it deems unacceptable is a remarkable expansion of its power over what was once a sacrosanct and constitutionally protected freedom. As we cede the public square to private companies, however, those constitutional freedoms of speech and expression no longer apply in some cases. Through those private companies, in fact, government officials can in effect restrict speech they are obligated to protect.
If Facebook is able to independently ban certain COVID-19 protests, what is to stop the company tomorrow from banning calls for women’s rights protests in the Middle East, LGBTQ protests in Russia or democracy protests in Hong Kong, all to comply with government rulings? Asked about these examples, the company declined to comment further or to commit that it would not expand its COVID-19 policy to other topics.
In the end, while we might question the wisdom of crowded protests in the midst of a pandemic, the responsibility for curbing such actions must fall to democratically elected governments answerable to the people, not private companies accountable to no one.