By Julie Reardon
Have you ever been in a really toxic relationship? If not, we all know someone who can’t seem to break it off with a partner who is obviously and completely a bad fit. What is the appeal of these overbearing, controlling and morally bankrupt types that would spy, stalk, lie, cheat, steal and profit from the misery they cause and then laugh all the way to the bank? Why would any sane person put up with such treatment? Worse, why do we put up with it from companies we do business with?
I’m stepping outside my comfortable little hollow in the Blue Ridge foothills to examine the growth of censorship and bias from social media. The biggest offenders are Google, Twitter and Facebook; these three and their offshoots have a virtual monopoly on social media today. And these Silicon Valley giants, have effortlessly stolen, sorted and categorized our personal data for corporate sales, while quietly undermining or simply buying competing entities. They’re now flexing their muscles with censorship to exert control over what we say and think. Stealing and selling personal information is scary enough but control over what you can say and think could be even worse. These corporate predators are using these tactics to throttle, shut down and/or damage any possible competition or indeed, any ideas, opinions or topics they do not agree with.
The censorship and restrictions on free speech to promote their own ideology was largely dormant in the infancy of social media. Being in “Facebook jail” used to be a joke and a clear indication you annoyed somebody enough to report you. But the censorship is turning into a cancer spreading into full blown control over what you read, write and think.
Facebook wants you to use its Messenger app as your main means of electronic communication, so new features such as direct calling, electronic payment and video chat are regularly trotted out. As it gained a foothold, Facebook quietly made Messenger incompatible with non-user messaging; thus users now act as an unpaid sales force for this Facebook product. But Messenger now needs a large hazard warning like the ones on other cancer-causing products. “Warning: You are being monitored to ensure you meet OUR standards. We can and will censor, suspend your use privileges, have your information removed capriciously at any time and for any reason and you shall have no way to defend yourself, because we aren’t content just to spy on you and sell your data.”
The censoring, page removal and banning is damaging many small businesses that have come to rely on Facebook and Messenger to operate. Facebook defends its censoring by saying it makes the product safer and more enjoyable. But by whose standards? Who makes the determination of what is hate speech or bullying? New censorship guidelines put out last year amounted to 1400 pages. And it has not helped Facebook’s soiled reputation: it’s the most hated company in America, according to the 2018 annual 24/7 Wall Street review. Rankings are based on several categories including American Customer Satisfaction Index survey results, major news events from last year, employee reviews from Glassdoor and more, including stock prices. From a record high in July, it recorded the biggest decline in history in August and by the end of the year was trading at 20 percent less.
Reprimands and censoring from Facebook and Twitter are not new, but formerly resulted mainly from other users reporting posts they felt were bullying or containing hate speech. Snitches are no longer necessary as automated scrutiny and censorship has been ramped up. Censoring posts, banning pages and restricting certain users for opinions, even those politely and respectfully written, began a few years ago. In the past several months I have seen an exponential increase in censoring, removing posts and restricting or banning users, including deployment of more and newer algorithms and web crawlers to search for content Facebook considers “hate speech” or “bullying”, capricious definitions that can change at whim.
Twitter users have also seen censorship and bans become widespread; and Google routinely promotes businesses it aligns with over those it does not. According to one high school user: “YouTube [owned by Google] now de-monetarizes popular videos,” she explained. People that post videos that go viral, normally receive ad revenue. But apparently, not if the subject is one Google does not approve of. “They are keeping the revenue the owner of viral video would normally get if the owner shows hunting videos or things like pet snakes being fed mice.”
A Christian ministry’s page was pruned by Facebook, but death threats against the pastor who ran the page, even after being reported, were ignored. Posts were removed and page administrators were banned with a clear double standard applied against the ministry, as well as a number of other Christian sites. Even though the page followed Facebook’s own directions, it was still targeted, while threatening posts against page owners and moderators were permitted by the social media giant.
Even in supposedly closed or “secret” Facebook groups with restricted audiences, posts are being censored and pruned for words and photos that might possibly be offensive to someone, somewhere outside of the group. If the overzealous Facebook police names what you posted “hate speech” or you’ve gotten more than one reprimand, your user privileges get suspended for anywhere from two to 30 days, sometimes even an outright ban. And a single warning, even if mistakenly applied, puts you forever in the Facebook censorship crosshairs: every subsequent post will now be scrutinized by automatons that may or may not be checked by contract workers abroad, most of whom are not native English speakers. I received a stern warning about hate speech and a 30 day ban for using the word cotton picker. I used it in reference to the farm machine that harvests cotton and it was even under a photo of the machine in a cotton field.
One user’s photo of a puppy was removed because it “contained nudity” according to Facebook; that person received a 30-day ban. Yet actual photos with nudity frequently appear and are not even removed when reported. Photos of the U.S. flag have been removed as “spam” including a video of the Star-Spangled Banner. The company claims that posts with critical opinions of a New Mexico terrorist under indictment for the death of a child while running a terrorist training camp constitute “hate speech” as are those critical of the illegal criminal previously deported who returned and is alleged to have shot and killed California police officer Cpl. Ron Singh.
Even a posted section of the Declaration of Independence was flagged as “hate speech” and removed. These examples and more are a tiny sample of ways the social media thought police are using to control what you read, write and think. In December, the New York Times reported on a 1,400+ page document outlining Facebook’s rules for governing global speech. According to the Times, “numerous gaps, biases and outright errors” were found in the way moderators determine what speech is considered appropriate for the platform.
“Facebook, the digital police state… Everyone who hoped the internet era would lead to a utopia of openness and freedom must now face the reality of a colossal digital police state in Facebook.” Although I replaced China with Facebook, this was taken verbatim from a Jan. 12 op ed in the Washington Post about the censorships and restrictions that totalitarian regime places on its estimated 800 million internet users. It described the Chinese as subject to the world’s largest censorship operation, including a so-called “Great Wall” that blocks access to millions of foreign websites and programs, including Twitter. But perhaps the world’s largest censorship operation is really Facebook, not the Chinese government.
About those secret groups: it’s a safe assumption to make that nothing you post online is truly private. But closed, and especially secret groups, are formed for the express purpose of private chat so that like-minded people can discuss what they want without fear of offending those who might think differently. This was why I was somewhat surprised that a post of mine describing a notoriously sleazy public figure as white trash earned me the hate speech warning along with a 48 hour censorship. The remark was in response to someone else’s post about the person, who is well known in the pornography industry.
Publishers Note: Ashley is taking a well-deserved month off from her column. Julie has been the OTC’s Blue Ridge contributor for many years so we gave her some space to explore another subject.