Events listings that violate social distancing orders implemented by governments are banned by the social media platform Facebook.
On Monday, the tech giant removed anti-quarantine protests in New Jersy, California, and Nebraska from its event listings.
Facebook’s move sparked outrage from numerous individuals including President Donald Trump’s son. According to him, the company’s move is a violation of free speech.
Many protests have been planned by people across the US as a means of telling the government to lift the stay at home implementations.
According to Facebook, it has consulted with local governments regarding the decision. As a result, only those events that violate the guidelines of the state will be taken down from the platform.
A spokesperson for Facebook said that the platform will permit events organized on the social network unless the government prohibits such events. For this reason, events that violate the social distancing guidelines implemented by the government are prohibited on Facebook.
In-person Protests Have Taken Place in States Across the US
In some states in the US, people planned and attended in-person protests, aiming to convince the local governments to lift lockdown policies– a move that clearly violates the stay at home orders.
Hundreds and even thousands of demonstrators stood outside the state capital building in Pennsylvania on Monday. Similarly, thousands of protesters also violated the stay at home policies in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia last week.
A spokesperson from Facebook told CNN that the company was conducting a meeting with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin representatives. The goal of the said meeting is to determine whether the demonstration events planned for those states should be taken down from the platform or not.
Many Criticized the Move of Facebook
A number of prominent Republicans said that the tech giant’s decision to take down event listings for protests is a suppression of free speech.
The eldest son of the US president, Donald Trump Jr., expressed his disapproval of the platform’s decision. He wrote a tweet, asking Facebook why it is working with state governments in order to suppress people’s free speech.
Similarly, Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley showed disapproval with Facebook’s move. He responded on a tweet that questions Facebook’s decision and pointed out that free speech is now illegal in America.
It can be recalled that Facebook has started working to take down false information about the coronavirus pandemic on its platform. Facebook’s company is also the owner of Instagram and WhatsApp. Its aggressive action against the fake news about COVID-19 stirred some questions from many critics. A lot of people have also been asking why the company seemed to have a hard time managing false information in the past.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and founder have always been vocal about protecting free speech ever since the pandemic began. According to him, Facebook would do everything it can to protect free speech as well as public health.
Facebook’s Decision Led to Controversy
The controversy of Facebook’s decision emphasized the challenges that happen when a private business or company becomes responsible for controlling a majority of the digital public square. This is especially true now that public health policies are limiting access to the physical public square.
Vera Eidelman, the staff attorney with the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project publicized her thoughts about the tech giant’s move. She agreed that mass gatherings that do not abide by social distancing policies can create a danger to the public health, to the protesters, as well as to their communities. However, she noted that speech about the government’s way of responding to the pandemic, such as relief packages including the Cares Act, and lockdown implementations, is core political speech.
What Should Facebook Do?
The anti-lockdown protests were relatively small. Yet, it was able to receive a considerable amount of media attention and the implicit endorsement that came from the US president. Those who joined the protests organized it through Facebook, in groups that are controlled by a family of pro-gun activists.
However, these demonstrations were criticized by many healthcare workers and public health experts. In fact, a group of nurses met a protest against stay at home policies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Monday. These nurses were carrying signs that urge people to go home.
Moreover, Facebook announced that event pages for protesters are required to make it clear for participants that they need to follow social distancing guidelines. The company also added that it will be removing particular calls for protest.
Facebook’s Aggressive Move Counts
This aggressive move is connected with the overall approach that Facebook did with the coronavirus pandemic. In its approach, the company adopted a more active editorial role than it took on before. Still, questions regarding the tech giant’s move remain.
One of the most important questions about Facebook’s move is whether it made a move against the protests on its own initiative or the government officials asked it to.
Access Now’s Jennifer Brody noted that information requests that come from governments are very problematic. She added that transparency must be present on takedown requests. Moreover, Broddy emphasized that state governments that are prompting Facebook to take down certain content do not go along with the norms of human rights.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye also questioned Facebook’s aggressive move. He asked whether it was right for the tech giant to make a move against particular protest pages, instead of leaving the government bodies to do takedown requests.
Kaye also added that deciding whether a protest is lawful or not is a task for government authorities. If people show up on a demonstration, it is the government’s duty to clamp down on them. Kaye emphasized that Facebook does the government’s role seems to suspect.
If a state government indeed informally requested Facebook to take down event listings, then it would be subject to a trial in court. However, if Facebook is moving and making a decision to take down content on its own, then it will face no legal liability. This is because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that federal law permits internet platforms to create and set their own content policies.