Squabble Over Controversial Content

Imagine this: You log in to your Facebook account one morning, and while casually browsing the site to discover new “friends,” you stumble across the page of an individual or group whose in-your-face, preposterous statements get you seething with anger.

The objective may or may not have been to incite a controversial storm, but it’s likely the poster took into account that strong emotional responses would be a by-product.

Now, try to mull over this next question more objectively: Even if you do consider certain material to be offensive, derogatory or just simply untrue, would you vote in favor of having the aforementioned statements permanently revoked from cyberspace? Or would you be willing to put personal feelings aside and argue that freedom of speech — or in this case, the written word — should take precedence?

Well, if you’re having trouble deciding, you’re not alone. A number of incidents have cropped up in recent months that get at this very question, and the nature of the responses varies drastically depending on the source.

Take, for instance, a legal movement that began to gain some momentum a few months ago. The purpose of the effort was to coerce Facebook administrators to delete and ban a number of groups that banded together and used the social networking forum to put forth their radical view: denying that the Holocaust ever took place.

Now, you can see how such a topic would be considered objectionable by the vast majority of the public. But that’s beside the point. The question is: Do you think it right to prevent others from discussing and debating the matter — or any type of controversial content — freely on a site such as Facebook?

At this point, we’re not attempting to debate the Constitution. We’re examining the issue from a moral, subjective standpoint.

In the aforementioned situation, Facebook has vehemently stuck to its stance that users with varying viewpoints should be permitted to exchange ideas and engage in dialogues as long as it isn’t disruptive to the rest of the community.

“Just being offensive or objectionable doesn’t get [posts] taken off Facebook; we want [the site] to be a place where people can discuss all kinds of ideas, including controversial ones,” a spokesperson for Facebook told CNN.

This doesn’t imply that administrators of such sites have adopted the laidback policy of “everything goes.” Instead, it appears they’re picking their battles.

For example, a Facebook spokesperson cited an instance in which his company made a unanimous decision to remove material it deemed threatening in nature and that contained explicitly violent tendencies — one of the stated grounds for removal from the site.

Some note that the present Holocaust debate might constitute a form of hate speech, which is also technically a basis for deletion from the site. Facebook, however, concluded that this was a slightly different issue.

So could this be categorized as an infringement of free speech? No, according to the attorney who started the movement. He has argued that this particular case doesn’t involve the violation of an individual’s rights to free speech because, since Facebook is privately owned, the administrators should be able to regulate the content on the site as they wish.

The problem is, how can an individual — or giant social networking site, for that matter — accurately pinpoint the motives of one group vs. another? What criteria should it use to distinguish the varying levels of objectionable content?

After all, you could see how discussing highly controversial topics without fear of being reprimanded could lead some to exploit the system. In fact, several months ago I discussed the unfortunately reality that the ability to remain anonymous in cyberspace prompts many a user to shed inhibitions and cross the norms of social decency.

These presumably will always be issues that large-scale sites such as Facebook will have to wrestle with on a regular basis. And we, as users or curious bystanders, will continue to closely monitor the outcomes. After all, the ramifications tend to affect more than just the parties involved.

– Deanna Hartley, dhartley@certmag.com

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Deanna Hartley

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