Facebook made headlines yesterday when it removed an ad by Sen. Elizabeth Warren that criticized its nearly unfettered power over the modern digital world. Proving the senator’s point, Facebook moved swiftly to delete the very ad that called attention to its ability to delete content it didn’t like. Only after the story went viral did the company finally begrudgingly back down and restore the ad "in the interest of allowing robust debate." What does this tell us about the ability of companies like Facebook to censor criticism of themselves?
In a twist of irony that even Hollywood couldn’t have come up with, yesterday Facebook deleted an ad that drew attention to its ability to censor debate it disagreed with. The company’s ability to silently remove an ad that criticized itself and called for action that would impact its bottom line offers an extraordinary commentary on the unrestricted power the major social platforms enjoy today over our online debate. Just a handful of companies control everything we see and say online using opaque and constantly changing rules that we have no right to access, few rights to appeal and operate under total darkness with no independent external review or oversight.
While Facebook noted that it did not delete other advertisements by Sen. Warren that called attention to its practices, the ability of the company to delete what amounted to a public service announcement by a democratically elected official of the U.S. Government is breathtaking and reminds us that our social platforms are no longer “American” companies, but rather global entities serving only their own bottom lines.
Only after a viral backlash did the company finally back down and restore the ad, citing the removal as merely being a routine result of it featuring the company’s logo in a manner with which it disagreed and that its policies on logo use granted it the authority to remove any content that utilized its logo in such ways.
Lost in this response is the implicit underpinning that the company’s policies have supremacy over public debate in a democracy. Facebook cited its logo policies as the reason for the removal of the ad but has the ability to change those policies at any moment.
What would happen if the company modified its logo policy to prohibit the mention of its name or logo in any ad that criticizes the company? With the insertion of a few words into its policy webpage, Facebook could instantly silence all debate about its role in society.
First Amendment rights to free speech do not apply to the private walled gardens of social media platforms, meaning we have no legal right to force the company to permit discussion of any topic it disagrees with. There is absolutely nothing stopping Facebook from simply deciding to ban any criticism of the company and if it did, there is absolutely nothing the public could do to force it to overturn that ban.
In fact, given that an ever-increasing percentage of our information consumption occurs through social media, the general public might not even know anything had happened.
If Facebook extended that ban to all posts and messages, it could effectively end all debate about itself and the world would never know.