It’s no secret: Social media has changed the way that we access news. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans report getting at least some of their news on social media. Another study suggests that globally, for those under 45, online news is now as important as television news. But thanks to platforms’ ever-changing algorithms, content policies, and moderation practices, news outlets face significant barriers to reaching online readers.
San Diego CityBeat's recent experience offers a sad case in point. CityBeat is an alt-weekly focusing on news, music, and culture. Founded in 2002, the publication has a print circulation of 44,000 and is best known for its independence and no-holds barred treatment of public officials and demo tapes. The site is also known for its quirky—and, it turns out, controversial—headlines.
It was one of those headlines that caused CityBeat to run afoul of Facebook’s censors. In late November, the platform removed links posted by CityBeat on their own page to a piece by popular columnist Alex Zaragoza. Her piece, entitled “Dear dudes, you’re all trash,” critiqued men for their complacency and surprise in the light of several high-profile sexual assault and harassment scandals. Zaragoza's similar post on her own timeline was also removed.
Ryan Bradford, the web editor of CityBeat, said that Facebook notified him about the post on a weekend. “It didn’t really occur to me how serious it was” at first, he says. “We’d been flagged for content before, [such as] artistic images that contain nudity.”
He had posted the link to CityBeat’s Facebook page a few days prior, even including the article’s sub-hed—“Even the “good ones” are safe in their obliviousness and complacency.” The message he received from Facebook pointed him to the Community Standards, but—as was the case with Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas—did not explicitly state which rule the content had violated. Users frequently complain that Facebook provides scant explanation for its removals.
Bradford thought of appealing but, he told us, “Sending a complaint seemed futile. It feels like you’re sending it out into the ocean.” And in this case, appealing wouldn't have been an option, as Facebook only allows users to appeal account deactivations, not removals of individual items.
By not notifying users about how their content has violated the rules, the company is setting up users for failure. Users must receive clear information about the rules they've violated and how they can appeal content decisions.
As we’ve said previously, private censorship isn’t the best way to fight hate or defend democracy. Corporations are often in a tough position when it comes to dealing with hate speech and other content, but blunt measures that classify a nuanced article in a reputable publication about sexual assault as verboten due to harsh language serve no one. Although corporations have the right to make their own decisions about what types of content users can post, they should seek to maximize freedom of expression. CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that the company stands for freedom of speech, but the decision to ban Zaragoza's piece says otherwise.
Or, as Bradford puts it: “To start censoring innocuous stuff that ultimately sends a positive message is a detriment to the online community.”