Facebook speech police hint at hidden bias
Last weekend, Facebook removed a meme posted by a political organization, Special Operations Speaks PAC, that criticized President Obama’s response to the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The meme read: “Obama called the SEALs and they got bin Laden. When the SEALs called Obama, they got denied.” And it came on the heels of media revelations that the White House had known about and denied a request from SEALs for backup at the diplomatic mission.
Facebook removed the meme not once, but twice, within 24 hours. It would only seem natural to wonder why.
“Political speech is the most protected speech,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Washington. Still, Facebook is a private company and may be granted wider latitude than the government in regulating what can be posted as speech on its site, he said. But that latitude might one day shorten. “I really don’t have any sense of [political bias at Facebook] … but as social media becomes all-pervasive, they can become quasi-public … like a utility company.”
So if Facebook is taking on a semi-public role, why the crackdown on political speech?
It was a mistake, said Andrew Noyes, manager of the company’s public policy communication. In an email, Mr. Noyes wrote: “This was an error and we apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused. Our dedicated User Operations Team reviews millions of pieces of content a day and our policies are enforced by a team of reviewers in several offices across the globe. This team looks at hundreds of thousands of reports every week, and as you might expect, occasionally, we make a mistake and block a piece of content we shouldn’t have.”
“It’s always possible it was an error,” he said. “But why’d they pull it down in the first place? Why choose that particular meme?”
After several emails and a telephone conversation with Mr. Noyes and one of his colleagues, Facebook still can’t shed any light on that particular question. Perhaps that’s because the company wouldn’t answer specific questions, preferring instead to issue a single statement for attribution and go off-record with all other comments. That’s Facebook’s privilege. But such tightly controlled public messaging doesn’t quell the curious, or the outraged.
“I think it’s absolutely unconscionable,” said Larry Bailey, a retired Navy SEAL and a founder of SOS. “It just gives you an idea how much the mainstream media, which includes Facebook, is in the liberal camp.”
Mr. Bailey’s supposition is gaining traction. In February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cozied up to Mr. Obama at a dinner in San Francisco that was most definitely not — according to White House spokesman Jay Carney — a political fundraiser, but rather a casual get-together of the president and what happened to be some of the world’s wealthiest technology executives. The dinner was hosted by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and top Democrat donor who also happens to be married to another top Democrat donor. A couple months later, Mr. Zuckerberg hosted his own get-together with Mr. Obama at his Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. In the meantime, Facebook’s political activities have skyrocketed.
In February, the Center for Responsive Politics reported Facebook’s political action committee had raised $170,000 in the last three months of 2011.
“And while it has yet to donate to a single politician on Capitol Hill,” the nonprofit center reported, “the company is capable of tapping a friendly and powerful network of donors to come up with a serious amount of campaign cash. Namely, its own employees.”
Facebook workers gave 67 percent, or $113,750, of all donations to the PAC in the fourth quarter, the center found. Mr. Zuckerberg himself made a first-time political donation of $5,000, the center revealed.
Not all the donations went to Democrats. But Facebook’s PAC was a top 2012 contributor to eight members of Congress, according to the center’s rating system; of those eight, five were Democrats.
So what does it all mean?