Friday, November 2, 2012

Facebook speech police hint at hidden bias

Last weekend, Facebook removed a meme posted by a political organization, Special Operations Speaks PAC, that criticized President Obama’s response to the murder of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The meme read: “Obama called the SEALs and they got bin Laden. When the SEALs called Obama, they got denied.” And it came on the heels of media revelations that the White House had known and denied a request from SEALs for backup at the embassy.

Facebook removed the meme not once, but twice, within a 24-hour period. It would only seem natural to wonder why.

“Political speech is the most protected speech,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. Still, Facebook is a private company, and may be granted wider latitude than the government in regulating what can be posted as speech on its site, he added. But that latitude might one day shorten. “I really don’t have any sense of [political bias at Facebook] … but as social media becomes all-pervasive, they can become quasi-public … like a utility company.”

So if Facebook is taking on a semi-public role, what gives with the message clamp-down?

It was a mistake, said Andrew Noyes, manager of the company’s public policy communication. In an email, Noyes wrote: “This was an error and we apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused. Our dedicated User Operations Team reviews millions of pieces of content a day and our policies are enforced by a team of reviewers in several offices across the globe. This team looks at hundreds of thousands of reports every week, and as you might expect, occasionally, we make a mistake and block a piece of content we shouldn’t have.”

Richard Brauer, Jr., a retired colonel with the U.S. Air Force and a founder of SOS, raises a good point.

“It’s always possible it was an error,” he said. “But why’d they pull it down in the first place? Why choose that particular meme?”

Several emails and a telephone conversation later with both Noyes and one of his colleagues, and Facebook still can’t provide insight to that particular angle. Perhaps that’s because they wouldn’t answer specific questions, preferring instead to issue a single statement for attribution and go off-record with all other comments. That’s fine, of course. That’s Facebook’s privilege. But such tightly controlled public messaging doesn’t quell the curious. Or, the outraged.

“I think it’s absolutely unconscionable,” said Larry Bailey, a retired Navy SEAL and a founder of SOS. “It just gives you an idea how much the mainstream media, which includes Facebook, is in the liberal camp.”

Bailey’s supposition does have steam. In February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cozied to Obama at a dinner in San Francisco that was most definitely not – according to White House spokesman Jay Carney – a political fundraiser, but rather a casual get-together of the president and what happened to be some of the world’s most successful and wealthiest technology group executives. The dinner was hosted by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and top Democrat donor, who also happens to be married to another top Democrat donor. A couple months later, Zuckerberg hosted his own get-together with Obama at his Facebook headquarters in California. In the meantime, Facebook’s political activities have skyrocketed.

In February, the Center for Responsive Politics reported Facebook PAC had raised $170,000 in the last three months of 2011.

“And while it has yet to donate to a single politician on Capitol Hill,” the Center reported, “the company is capable of tapping a friendly and powerful network of donors to come up with a serious amount of campaign cash. Namely, its own employees.”

Facebook workers gave 67 percent, or $113,750, of all donations to the PAC in the fourth quarter, the Center found. Zuckerberg himself made a first-time political donation of $5,000, the Center revealed.

Not all the donations helped the Democrats, that’s true. But the PAC was a 2012 top contributor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ rating system, to eight congressional members; of those eight, five were Democrats. So what’s it all mean?

Well, at the very least, Facebook can’t deny it’s an emerging political player. And it can’t deny that Democrats are often recipients of Facebook money. Take that with the ongoing and growing scandal involving the White House and Benghazi, the tick-tock of the presidential election clock, and the known and admitted abuses of the mainstream media to skew stories to their liking – think NBC’s creative edit to paint George Zimmerman as a racist -- and you’ve got a recipe for justifiable suspicion. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so silly to suggest Facebook actually pulled a message to protect a political agenda.

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