Facebook group ignites protest

Social-networking site has been dealing with a growing controversy surrounding one of its groups.

Josh Wolf
Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
Josh Wolf
3 min read

When creating a broad forum or social-networking site like Facebook, deciding what, if any, content should be prohibited is always a difficult decision. Pornography and unauthorized copyrighted material are usually forbidden, but any other restrictions will often spark calls of censorship and accusations that the forum infringes on the freedom of speech guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. In reality, the constitution doesn't dictate what must be allowed in these circumstances, just as you are permitted to make certain subjects off-limits in your own home. Despite the fact that there is no constitutional issue, there is a perception of one, and the concerns about censorship are very real and do have merit.

Lately, Facebook has been dealing with a growing controversy surrounding one of its groups. F**k Islam has more than 800 members, has generated almost 20,000 wall posts, and sparked a number of similar groups in addition to a host of groups built around their opposition to the group's existence. The debate has recently spilled into The New York Times. According to the Times:

The organizer of the anti-Islam site, a man who said in an e-mail message that his legal name is Variable, wrote, "Facebook briefly deleted my account, and I assumed they did so because of the group, but they reinstated the account and told me that it was a mistake of some sort."

He said he disagreed that his site was trafficking in hate speech. "The custom of protecting freedom of speech allows people to address belief systems in the harshest of terms...he wrote, adding that his group's sentiment is "a peaceful one; atheism is a belief system that few will die for, because there is no reward."

He noted that a search on Facebook finds a multitude of sites attacking him personally, "which qualifies as hate speech," unlike his site, "which concerns itself with abstract ideas."

Should "F**k Islam" be defined as hate speech? I don't know. Facebook's terms of use state that the site and service is not to be used to "upload, post, transmit, share, store or otherwise make available any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable." While the group may not be considered hate speech, it seems it would probably be considered "defamatory," "inflammatory," "vulgar," and possibly "otherwise objectionable."

I'm not saying that Facebook should remove the group; I'm merely pointing out what standards the company has set for controversial material. Others have threatened that if Facebook does not remove the group, then they will remove themselves from Facebook. One group formed around this agenda has managed to attract more than 60,000 users. It's unclear whether these people will actually follow through on their promise. Even if they are committed, I don't think they've established a date for the mass exodus should their demands not be met.

Clearly a group called "F**k Islam" does nothing to improve interfaith relations, but I don't think threatening to boycott the company accomplishes anything either. While Facebook does have legitimate reason to remove the group pursuant to their "terms of use," now that a vocal minority has threatened to leave if the group is not banned things become much trickier.

If Facebook decides to remove F**k Islam, then many will think the company succumbed to the protesters' demands, and this will lead to others feeling that they can rally to kick other groups off the site. Facebook has the authority to decide what is appropriate for its site, but the last thing Facebook should do is surrender to the demands of loud groups trying to dictate what should and should not belong on Facebook.