Friday, March 26, 2021

But What About MY Rights???

It's official, I am now a Facebook jailbird.  

I'm not quite sure if that's something to be ashamed of, or a badge of honor. The truth is, if I ran the social media giant, I probably would have banned myself years ago for all the obnoxious, expletive-laden posts and responses to posts that are a sad part of my legacy. The arguments with former friends and family members that led to the disintegration of relationships and the ultimate social media shame, de-friendship, all centering around the administration of the exPOTUS, should have been my undoing.  

They weren't.

So what did I do to land myself in Facebook jail? Well in the words of the company, I violated their community standards, twice. Vague indeed but I can tell you exactly what I did: 

I knowingly disseminated false information about an election, and I threatened to kill someone. 

Wow that's terrible you say but in my defense, had my Facebook judges and jurors been sentient human beings rather than an algorithm, I'm convinced I'd at the most been given probation rather than a jail sentence, if any sanctions at all. 

The problem is that while computer programs are very good at tracking down what their creators deem to be objectionable content such as spreading false information or threats of violence, they are terrible at determining intent, taking into account things like context or even worse, sarcasm and irony. 

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, the latter two are sometimes even difficult for intelligent human beings to discern as well. 

I'll never forget the time when during my days as an art courier, I was accompanying a major (and rather large) painting from an exhibition in Spain, back to its home in Chicago on a cargo flight. Having experienced cargo flights first hand, I can say there is no better way to travel, you have a front row seat up in the cockpit and normally (although not on this particular flight) a comfy bunk to sleep in when you get tired of hanging out with the pilots. Despite all that, this trip was arduous, Madrid to Montreal to Mexico City and finally to Chicago, 24 hours in total. 

I did manage to develop a good rapport with the crew, always a good idea, especially one pilot who seemed to appreciate, and even share my peculiar sense of humor. So I felt comfortable joking with him, suggesting rather than flying all the way to Mexico then back to Chicago, that I just parachute with the painting out of the plane when we flew past Chicago. Suddenly the pilot's demeanor changed, and in a completely serious, non-ironic tone he said to me: "no, that would be impossible." 

It's even more difficult to weed out irony when you are not face-to-face with someone. A number of times I've made snarky, sarcastic, conspiracy theory laden social media comments so outrageous they would shock a dyed-in-the-wool, dues paying Q-Anon member. Still I've been called on them by bona-fide human beings who didn't get the joke. One woman suggested I was either kidding or a complete idiot. After assuring her that both assumptions were correct, I promised to be more careful in the future because after Kellyanne Conway's infamous comment about "alternative facts", officially marking the death of irony, every comment from that point on, no matter how outrageous, had to be taken at face value.

Anyway here's my story:

Shortly before the last election, a friend who by and large shares my political opinions, posted on Facebook an article about Democrats being more likely to have voted early, while most Republicans were likely to vote on the day of the election.  I casually responded something to the effect of "well let's hope for the best and be sure to remind all our Republican friends to get out and vote on November 4th. The official day of the election of course was November 3rd. 

That was Facebook strike one.

Strike two which landed me in FB jail, took place yesterday when I threatened to kill someone. Despite the sound of it, strike two was much more innocent than strike one. On a Facebook site devoted to the school in which she taught for decades and ended up as principal, someone remembered my Mom's birthday, to which several dozen folks responded with well wishes. One of them, a fellow I don't personally know asked: "how old is she?" Now like many of her generation, my mother is extremely protective of her age. So I replied: "I could tell you but then I'd have to (blank) you." Not wanting to end up in Blogger jail as well I'm omitting the offending word. Then to soften the blow I added: "That is if my mother doesn't (blank) me first."

You probably can guess the missing word because, well because I already mentioned it above but also because that statement is an extremely popular tongue-in-cheek expression, commonly used in both British and American English. No one with half an operating brain and/or at least a beginner's level of the English language would interpret that as a serious threat. 

So there you have it. My FB account was suspended for 24 hours. When I return as I most certainly will, if I screw up again, it would be strike three, and I may be banned from the platform. 

Unthinkable? Ridiculous? Absurd? 

Perhaps, but in all honesty I don't have a problem with it. 

You see, I've never been under the misconception that Facebook is anything other than a huge company whose primary goal is to make a huge profit. As far as these things go, it provides a service, and in return it is compensated, just like GM, Target, or the Ma and Pa corner grocery store, if such a thing still exists. 

As for the service it provides, I find that Facebook continues to perform well the purpose for which is was created, namely keeping people in touch with one another. In that sense I'm able keep up with folks whom I might not otherwise be in touch with were it not for the platform. I can share my friends' joy in their accomplishments and milestones, as well as sorrow for their disappointment and loss. I can share ideas with folks far and wide (sometimes to a fault as mentioned above) as well as shoot the breeze at a moment's notice on whatever topic I please, and almost always be guaranteed a response, something I can't always count on at home. 

Facebook has provided me a wonderful opportunity, via a group dedicated to folks learning Spanish, to communicate in that language with fellow learners all over the world. 

I've modestly promoted my own photography on the platform and also on occasion use Facebook to draw people to this site.

But like everything, there is a price to pay.   

If the phrase-culling algorithm that busted me sounds a little big brothery to you, it's nothing compared to the ones they use to extract money out of our pockets. Everyone who's ever so much as browsed at a product in an online store has noticed that all of a sudden, ads appear for that product and others like it everywhere you go online. This is true for every "free" online platform from Duolingo to Facebook. We've come to expect this and invasive as it might be, directed advertising such as this can even be helpful to the consumer. 

But I had an experience this past weekend that went well beyond that. My wife, who has no Facebook account of her own, purchased a bed frame online. Faster than you can say Mark Zuckerberg, my Facebook feed was flooded with ads for you guessed it, beds.

That to me was a little creepy, but not surprising.   

Beyond that, for me Facebook can be, if I'm not careful, an addictive, time sucking, black hole.  Need I say more?

But it gets much worse. 

I'm sure you know the story. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms came under serious scrutiny four years ago after the last presidential election for their failure to monitor and remove posts that promoted false or misleading information, much of it directed at the Democratic candidate for president at the time, Hillary Clinton. It is widely suspected that many of the offending posts originated in Russia, AND that the dissemination of false information may have in fact swung the outcome of that election. 

If that weren't enough, people with bad intentions have used social media sites to coordinate violent acts, from flash mobs of bored teenagers looking to start trouble in our cities, to adult thugs, following the marching orders of an exPOTUS, to stage an insurrection in our nation's capital. 

Needless to say the general public got fed up and demanded that social media platforms start controlling the content on their sites. 

It took some kicking and screaming on their part, but the internet giants started taking action. 

Of course Facebook can't possibly have human beings monitoring every single post, let alone the additional comments on them from the roughly 2.8 billion, (yes billion with a B) members of the platform. 

Nor can they rely solely upon complaints from users on the activities of others, as that review process would certainly take too long to prevent an actual crime from occurring. 

That's where the algorithms, imperfect as they are, come in.

For my part, I was given the option to appeal their algorithm's judgement of my comments, or suck it up and accept the consequences. I chose the latter because I didn't want to waste my time trying to defend myself to them. However I would probably appeal a harsher ban, should that ever come to pass. And I am pretty confident I would win, not because of common sense on their part, but because of the bottom line. 

One of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life was FB founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg trying to explain Facebook's business model before befuddled legislators during Congressional hearings investigating the company's use and possible exploitation of users' personal information. One of the senators who appeared to have just awakened from a 100 year nap asked how it is possible for the company to make a profit without charging its customers for the use of their service. Zuckerberg looked at the senator much like that pilot looked at me when I asked if I could jump out of his airplane at 35,000 feet. "Um Senator..." he said, "we run ads."

The only difference between today's social media giants and broadcast TV and radio before it, is the targeted advertising I mentioned above, made possible by the internet and the algorithms that control it, has made Facebook and other social media platforms exponentially more valuable to advertisers and consequently, exponentially more profitable, and exponentially more powerful.  

So I'm not too worried that I'll get the heave-ho from Zuckerberg and Co. as I don't think they're intent on bending over backwards to lose my business, (I do buy stuff after all), or make an example out of little ol' me.   

But shouldn't I be appalled that by censoring me, Facebook is depriving me of my right to speech?

In a word, no. 

The writers of the Bill of Rights are very clear on this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The very first words state that "Congress shall make no law..."

In other words, the government can't deprive a person his or her liberty on account of what she or he says. Implicitly this right does not extend to private entities' restriction of speech.

In still other words, Facebook jail is not real jail. 

Because of the guarantee of freedom of the press mentioned in the First Amendment of our constitution, Facebook and other private entities from Breitbart to the New York Times have the right to set standards for what they publish as well as the right to deny publishing what they feel violates those standards. In fact, a good argument can be made that it would be a violation of THEIR First Amendment rights to be forced to publish everything their subscribers happen to come up with. They as publishers have the right to print, or not print, what they please. Along with that right of course, is that they have the responsibility of owning up to their decisions. 

But can't an argument be made that social media platforms are our modern day equivalent of soap boxes on the public square? How else are people today going to express their right to speak?

I honestly think this is a valid argument in ethical, if not legal terms. 

On the other hand as we all know, not all speech is protected, even by the First Amendment. 

Speech that poses a direct threat to public safety (such as the proverbial falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater), is not protected. Nor is speech that directly conflicts with other people's rights such as libel, slander, child pornography, or "fighting words" (words intended to incite hatred of violence). 

I believe that just as the Second Amendment addresses (or in some opinions doesn't address) the individual's right to bear arms, common sense has to come into play. Responsibility goes hand in hand with rights, and no right is absolute. Just as there is a world of difference between a pistol and an assault weapon, the same is true of a constructive argument and the willful intent to mislead, or a legitimate threat of violence, precisely the two things I was accused of.

So what ARE my rights as a Facebook member?

That's pretty easy, I'm free to use the platform to my heart's content, so long as I follow their rules.

Consequently, with two strikes against me, and a weakness for the high fastball so to speak, my days on the platform may be numbered. 

Well that's a pretty defeatist attitude isn't it?

Not really. Like everything, one's relationship with a business, any business, is symbiotic, that is to say, at least one party benefits from that relationship. If everything works as it should, both parties mutually benefit. However should that relationship become one way, (parasitic as the biologists call it), the party getting the short end of the bargain has every right to pull the plug. If Facebook feels my presence there is truly toxic, believe me, they'll pull the plug in a heartbeat. 

But at least as it stands now, they need me, they need you (if you're a member), and they need the rest of their 2.8 billion subscribers, as much as we need them. There is at least some power in knowing that we can pull the plug on them as well.

In the meantime I'm happy they're doing something to control the outrageous and harmful actions of some of their subscribers. Crude as they are. their means to reasonably promote meaningful dialogue while at the same time strongly discourage or if it comes to it, ban actions that trample on others' rights may be may be effective, or they may be just a band-aid, but the fact that they're at least doing something makes my brief time in Facebook jail worth it.

Not to mention it gives me the credibility to face all the delusional, racist, conspiracy theory, nut job whiners out there, bent on destroying our democracy who are complaining about having their First Amendment rights violated by being censored by Facebook by simply telling them this: 

No they're not. 

No comments: