Facebook: Too Big To Delete

On Wednesday, one day after Facebook announced that 2 billion people use its service every month, ProPublica released a bombshell investigation into the company's hate-speech censorship guidelines. The report included documents revealing that Facebook's rules often end up protecting the rights of those in power over those who are powerless. These two revelations are inextricably entwined, each enabling and necessitating the other.

Facebook is the biggest social network on the planet—more than a quarter of the human race uses its site—precisely because it so actively censors and curates its community and follows local laws that enable it to exist even in oppressive countries. And because it is so huge, people who most need a platform for expression online can’t afford to not be on it—even if that means enduring seemingly arbitrary censorship.

This is the network effect in action. As more people use Facebook, its value increases exponentially. That is especially true for people who don't have other networks through which they can share information—people such as dissidents, activists, or minority groups. Now that Facebook is the single biggest network on earth, the price people pay by leaving it is enormous.

“Facebook wouldn’t like to call themselves a monopoly, because that comes with regulations, but from a lot of perspectives they are the dominant player,” says Steven Murdoch, a researcher at University College London. Whether it’s a corporate monopoly that could be fined by the European Union is a question for another time, but one thing is clear: Facebook is certainly a social monopoly. “In order to get an audience, which is what people often want if they are, say, an activist, they need to stay involved with the dominant player. And that is Facebook,” Murdoch says. The next most popular social media site worldwide, What's App, is also owned by Facebook. The next most popular non-Facebook-owned social media site in the US is Twitter, which has only 328 million active users. If you want your message to reach the most people, you better post to Facebook.

Rules for Everyone

In order to get that big, Facebook has to be everything to everyone. “The fundamental disconnect is that they are a global company and they are trying to make these rules apply globally,” says Judith Donath, an expert on online communities at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

Appeasing the majority is the middle road Facebook has to walk in order to be a safe enough place for billions of people to want to engage. “The mainstreamness and rigidity of Facebook is what lets it get so huge,” Donath says. A site like Twitter, which has much laxer rules about hate speech, can never be as big as Facebook because some people find it unsafe or offensive. In fact, it was its "buttoned-up" quality, as ProPublica notes, that allowed Facebook to surpass its earliest rival, MySpace, which allowed more offensive content to proliferate on its site.

According to Facebook’s internal documents, in order to systematize the censorship of hate speech so billions of people feel safe, it uses a simple formula: "protected category + attack = hate speech.” Protected categories include things like race and gender, but not age. If someone attacks a person who is in a subset of a protected category, Facebook's rules seem to treat them as no longer protected. That results in strange and culturally tone-deaf inconsistencies, such as the revelation that “white men” are protected from hate speech but “black children” are not.

When this came to light Wednesday, people on social media quickly expressed their outrage, but few were surprised. Though Facebook hasn’t been transparent about its policies, people who have been censored in seemingly arbitrary ways have noticed for years. One of the people Facebook censored, and whom ProPublica highlighted, was poet and Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado, who earlier this year published an article on Medium titled “Mark Zuckerberg Hates Black People,” in which she discussed at length how Facebook’s guidelines penalized her and her fellow activists.

"I, like many Black organizers, have taken to maintaining two accounts — a primary and a backup. It’s infuriating and tedious, but I chalk it up to the Black tax," Delgado wrote. "Since Black organizers are more likely to have their content flagged and removed for 'violating community standards,' we’ve had to find workarounds to sustain our online presence and engagement."

Delgado is stuck using the same platform that she says hates her precisely so she can maintain that online presence. Even though Delgado uses other networks to reach her audience— Medium, for instance, and Twitter, and Patreon— she hasn’t deleted her Facebook account. Neither have any of the other people who ProPublica found had been targeted by Facebook's guidelines. Nor has Damon Young, a writer who says his account was suspended over a post about racism after the police officer who shot Philando Castile was acquitted. When there's robust competition— say, Uber and Lyft in the ride-sharing market— you can delete one account in protest of a company’s polices and use the other. Not so with Facebook.

Instead, people wait until Facebook turns their accounts back on, and then resume posting. They operate multiple accounts, as Delgado does, knowing that Facebook could suspend one of them at any time.

People Need Facebook Too Much

Murdoch says people often counter that anyone who disagrees with Facebook's policies is free to leave it. “But that is a privileged position,” he says, coming from people with alternative communication networks. For a large portion of people on Facebook—and especially for people whose work is to share information—giving up Facebook means being less effective at what they do.

“Leaving Facebook is always an option— if you don't mind leaving the biggest audience on earth behind, not to mention the platform where most of your friends are. It's a very tough tradeoff, particularly for activists like those discussed in the story, who need access to the biggest possible audience to do their work,” says J. M. Berger, a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism— The Hague, who studies how people use the internet.

Facebook has all the power in these relationships. When the site first went global, after leaving the siloed dorm rooms of its infancy, Facebook empowered people to tell their side of the story, to have their voices heard outside of the mainstream systems that had otherwise silenced them. Mainstream media doesn’t care about your plight? Post directly to Facebook. Dictatorial regime won’t let you speak about your hunger, frustration, oppression? Post directly to Facebook. Facebook has been, in some real ways, a way to route around censorship. But as it grows, it is also becoming a censor that forces people to route around it.

One way to do that, now that the guidelines have been made public, is to pick your words carefully. According to the guide, Facebook will consider it hate speech if you write “White people suck,” but not if you write “White people on the internet suck.” Your other option is to post to smaller sites. A tweet may not get you the 2 billion-person audience of Facebook, but it might get your words out there.