One morning a few weeks ago, I poured myself a cup of coffee and fired up my laptop. I was stopped in my tracks.
Upon logging into Facebook to post articles to two pages that I administer for work, I was greeted with a message that read: “We removed content that you posted.” The offending photo was a clever German breast cancer awareness campaign that involved partial nudity. Facebook informed me that I would be blocked from posting for the next 24 hours. “People who repeatedly post things that aren’t allowed on Facebook may have their accounts permanently disabled,” they warned.
What happened next was very interesting to me. I am a free expression activist—an employee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based legal and advocacy group that aims to protect people’s rights in the digital realm. Part of my work involves studying social media companies’ terms of service to understand how people are affected by corporate censorship. When I posted the offending content, I knew that I was breaking the rules.
Now, for the first time, I found myself banned from the site. What I learned made me realize the unexpected—and potentially devastating—consequences of being cut off from the world’s largest social media site.
Facebook’s “Community Standards” ban most types of nudity, under the grounds that some users “may be sensitive to this type of content—particularly because of their cultural background or age.” Like many others, I have been vocally opposed to this policy for some time. I believe that it’s paternalistic, sexist, and stems from Facebook treating nudity as inherently sexual. Indeed, try reporting a photo right now, and you’ll see that nudity and pornography are lumped together, as if they are one and the same.
Since moving to Germany, I’ve come to realize how strange the US taboo on nudity must seem to outsiders. The US restricts films that contain nudity and sex, but allow graphic, often-gendered violence on prime-time television.
Facebook’s policies reflect those of traditional American media. But Facebook’s user base is global. Americans and Canadians make up only 17% of the platform’s users. Business owners in France and the United States, an Aboriginal writer in Australia, and a breast cancer patient in Wales have all spoken out against Facebook’s nudity policies.
I regularly post test different images to see how consistent Facebook’s moderators are. (The answer: they’re not.) A few months ago I posted a painting of a nude Bea Arthur and encouraged my friends to report it, to see what would happen. Sure enough, the photo was taken down. I was able to successfully appeal that through a feature Facebook offers. That may be because the company makes an exception for paintings and sculptures, although I’ve heard anecdotes of vacation photos containing Michelangelo’s David being removed. But with the German breast cancer ad, I crossed a threshold.
My project Onlinecensorship.org solicits reports from users who have been banned, had their accounts removed, or had content taken down across six different platforms. One of the questions that we ask in our survey is “How has this impacted your life?”
In the past few months, we’ve received a wide array of responses from Facebook users, ranging from mere annoyance to much bigger problems. Some users reported being cut off from business customers and associates. Others have reported feeling isolated from friends and family. Bans can last up to 30 days for repeat offenses. In our post-email world, Facebook is the great connector—the only means that some people have of remaining in touch with distant kin. Being banned from contact from them for 30 days could, for some, be deeply painful.
For me, being cut off temporarily was merely an inconvenience. During the 24 hours of my ban, I was unable to post comments on news sites like the Huffington Post (which solely uses Facebook’s commenting feature) and unable to log in to third-party services, like Tinder and Spotify.
Most troublingly, I was prevented from administering my Facebook pages. In order to do my work that day, I had to contact colleagues and ask them to post articles for me. The members of my team were understanding. But I can imagine a scenario in which a person, temporarily banned from Facebook, loses their job for being unable to perform their duties. The dangers also extend to small businesses, many of which rely on social media to promote themselves and communicate with customers. I’ve seen cases where marijuana dispensaries based in states where pot is legal are cut off from Facebook entirely.
My ban was temporary, and I was somewhat aware of the consequences of posting an exposed breast. But users who violate other rules—such as the requirement that they use their real names—may not understand their error or how to appeal it. If the name on their Facebook identification doesn’t match the name they use in real life, they may not be able to maintain their chosen identity on the site. Unsurprisingly, the LGBTQ community and victims of abuse seem to be disproportionately affected by this policy.
I believe that this problem stems from a lack of diversity at Facebook. Seventy-three percent of Facebook’s US leadership is white. Globally, 77% of the company’s leadership are men. Women make up just 32% of the company’s global staff, and only 2% of the US staff is black, a number far disproportionate to the actual black American population. The company doesn’t publish salary data, but crowd-driven sites like Glassdoor and Payscale suggest that even at the lower end of the scale, Facebook employees make considerably more than the average American.
Given those statistics, it’s no wonder Facebook isn’t in touch with its most vulnerable users. Facebook’s employees live in or near cities and work on campuses that have been described as “glamorous.” They’re privileged and connected. How can they understand the effect that being banned can have on these users?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts that the company will have five billion users by 2030. “We want to finish connecting everyone,” he said in February. “We’re going to do it in partnership with governments and different companies all over the world.”
Zuckerberg may have good intentions. But given Facebook’s track record, it’s easy to be pessimistic about government partnerships. The company has restricted content at the behest of countries such as Russia—despite the fact that Russia would appear to have no legal jurisdiction over Facebook, given that the company does not have offices there. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has been pursuing a relationship with China so intensely that Chinese citizens have mocked him for it. Chinese government censors responded by warning the press to stop spreading “malicious” comments about Zuckerberg’s recent Beijing visit. Clearly, as Quartz itself has warned, “The only way Facebook enters China is as a tool of the government.”
This danger applies to a number of other countries. For example, Facebook has already taken down thousands of posts at the behest of the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan government in Turkey and the governments in India and Pakistan. It seems quite clear that a number of governments have the company in a chokehold.
If Facebook compromises on its professed values of freedom of expression and openness, where does that leave its five billion users, who may one day find themselves punished by the site for making political statements? As social media platforms come to replicate the “public sphere”—defined by sociologist Jürgen Habermas as “society engaged in critical public debate” that is “coextensive with public authority”—their influence on our lives increases. When they partner with governments, they inch closer to gaining a monopoly on our speech.
In conducting my research, both official and personal, I’ve had to consider many sides of many arguments. Should social media companies ban hate speech? Nudity? Support for terrorism? Should they allow anonymity? Should they respond to government requests? On some of these questions, I have strong opinions. On others, I can see both sides.
But there is one thing of which I’m certain: Facebook has a diversity problem. By hiring more women and people of color, and bringing in more diverse staff from around the world, the site can gain much-needed perspectives on these vital questions.
It is my hope that when those perspectives are gained, Facebook will reconsider its policies. Given the social media site’s massive influence, I worry that its policies will shape cultural attitudes—much as Hollywood depictions of women, the LGBT community, racial minorities and others have ingrained stereotypes and biases into our collective consciousness.
If Facebook’s banning policies suggest that women’s bodies are shameful and that trans people should not be allowed to change their names, millions of users may adopt these biases into their daily lives. Meanwhile, others will continue to face the prospect of being cut off from their friends, family and potentially their livelihoods—all as punishment for logging in, and daring to show their true selves.