‘Pervasive Pattern of Political Bias?’

April 18, 2018

9 min read

On April 10 in Washington D.C., Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg began a hearing in Congress in which he was questioned about protecting user privacy in the case of Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that received access to the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users, and then used that data for targeted political ads.

Although the hearing regarded privacy, perhaps the most poignant of questions came from Senator Ted Cruz, regarding alleged censoring of content. Cruz is a long-time believer that Facebook has a proven “pervasive pattern of political bias” against conservatives.

In the hearing, Zuckerberg admitted that the political leaning of his employees is “a fair concern,” considering the company’s headquarters in left-leaning Silicon Valley. This concern is perhaps felt most strongly in Israel, where various activist voices say that their pages are being disproportionately deemed as “inappropriate content,” including reports of economic strangulation of their paid content.

Avi Abelow, Founder and CEO of 12TribeFilms, maintains that his material often undergoes “a number of levels of censorship on Facebook.”

“We are very strong pro-Israel voices and part of our pro-Israel voice is supporting Israel against anti-Semitism in the Islamic world,” Abelow told Breaking Israel News.  

However, the censored material is by no means hate speech, and is not even limited to pro-Israel messages, he said. Material flagged as inappropriate and taken down has included “education about Israel, content on terrorist attacks, and news that happens in Israel, and even music videos,” he said.

CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, testifying to the US Congress in April of 2018. (Capture/YouTube)

According to Abelow, while Facebook “changed its algorithms so the entire publishing industry was hit and hurt with lower numbers,” he has experienced two additional levels of censorship.

First, he said 12TribeFilms receives notices that certain articles are inappropriate and are therefore removed, “and we are not able to drive traffic to those articles,” he told Breaking Israel News. Secondly, said Abelow, Facebook often removes the company’s paid advertising “because they don’t agree with it.”

“It’s a very sophisticated censorship – economic censorship,” he said. “It is not stopping us from writing, but Facebook controls how much exposure we get and how much we can earn by economically strangling entities that do not align with their value system.”  

Similarly, Ari Fuld, assistant director and fundraiser for Standing Together, an organization that supports Israeli soldiers, told Breaking Israel News that in addition to his personal page being blocked after he was reported for “bullying,” which he says was simply expressing an opinion that others did not agree with, his four highly active business pages were also blocked, prohibiting him from raising money for the organization through Facebook outreach.

“Some 85 to 90 percent of my fundraising comes from Facebook, so when Facebook blocked me for 30 days, meaning there was no activity for that long on any of my accounts, this affected many IDF soldiers who were not able to receive help from thousands of people from around the world,” he said.

Being in “Facebook jail” for the month not only put his job at risk, he said, but undermined his nonprofit’s ability to stand with and support IDF soldiers. The NGO was unable to perform its regular activities, such as providing financial support for soldiers, as well as delivering food and other support packages to IDF soldiers on the front lines.

“I debate left-wingers on Facebook, but I never get personal,” he told Breaking Israel News. “I couldn’t believe that I was blocked for bullying,” he said.


Digital-Age Decisions

According to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, Senior Fellow and head of the Democracy in the Information Age Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, bullying and harassment online have become a serious discussion in Israeli society after an Israeli civil servant committed suicide after being exposed to a viral Facebook harassment campaign that accused him of racism (a claim he denied).

“That raised quite a few questions, and the Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, decided to create a committee to deal with public harassment,” Shwartz Altshuler told Breaking Israel News. “She appointed the committee in 2015, but up until today, they haven’t come up with any recommendations.”

Such liberal applications of Facebook censorship is not new. Although Zuckerberg said in the hearing that “our goal is certainly not to engage in political speech,” Cruz noted, “There are great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”

Indeed, in May of 2016, Cruz noted, Gizmodo reported that Facebook had “purposefully and routinely suppressed conservative stories from trending news, including stories about CPAC, including stories about Mitt Romney, including stories about the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, including stories about Glenn Beck.”

US Senator Ted Cruz (left) questions Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg at Capitol Hill. (Capture/YouTube)

In addition, Cruz said, Facebook shut down the “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” page in 2012, around the same time that the fast-food chain COO made comments against same-sex marriage. Facebook has also “blocked a post of a Fox News reporter, has blocked over two dozen Catholic pages, and most recently, blocked Trump supporters Diamond and Silk’s page with 1.2 million Facebook followers, after determining their content and brand were ‘unsafe to the community,’” said Cruz.  

Claims of censorship has gone beyond the political and into the religious. According to The Christian Post, Elizabeth Johnston, a conservative who runs the popular “Activist Mommy” Facebook page, was suspended twice for quoting and explaining the Biblical view of homosexuality. The Christian Post reported that Johnston’s page was suspended after she quoted the Book of Leviticus, which declares homosexuality, like all sins, as “detestable” and an “abomination.” Facebook froze her page for three days and removed the comment in question, saying that the post did not follow the Facebook Community Standards.

The judge of what does and does not follow the Facebook Community Standards is up to each employee, and oftentimes, one’s own political or religious leanings can affect this decision, as Zuckerberg admitted in Congress.

Photo of Facebook’s 2015 Community Standards page on a monitor screen – it presents, explains and clarifies guides,policies and rules. (Shutterstock)

According to Shwartz Altshuler, having humans monitor content, rather than machines, creates inconsistencies and bias in deciding what is censored.

“Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are not sophisticated enough in terms of their ability to analyze or to do language processing,” she told Breaking Israel News. “Speech is very contextual. It could be funny, satire, or it could be incitement to terror or Holocaust denial. AI cannot yet monitor in such a way that it can be really precise or differentiate between illegal and legal content. It could be within five to 10 years that AI systems are sophisticated enough, so instead of using AI systems, used in other cases of online, Facebook has hired more and more humans to monitor the content, which creates biases and problems,” she said.

Often times, Facebook’s Community Standards are not reported consistently. Depending on the employees analysis of Facebook standards, or their own personal beliefs, they may not evaluate the same post in the same way as another Facebook employee would.

For example, while denying the Holocaust is against Facebook’s community standards, many have reported pages whose entire mission is denial of the Holocaust, only to receive a message from Facebook saying that the content does not go against their community standards.

Screenshot courtesy of Kimberly Kunkel

Abelow maintained that the problem of subjective censorship is not only a threat to his finances and free speech, but it’s a great threat to democracy at large.

“Facebook is deciding which issues come under this amorphous term ‘hate speech’ because certain people will be offended by opinions and ideas,” Abelow said. “And that is a threat to the fabric of American democracy, which begins in saying these ideas are hurtful. No, ideas aren’t hurtful, ideas are meant to be discussed and disagreed upon, not to forbid someone from saying their ideas or opinions because it hurts your feelings.”

He continued, “If New York Times makes a post dealing with a terror attack in Israel, they are not censored, so why can’t we write about it from our angle?” he asked. “The second there is a judge about which ideas can or cannot be permitted, or ideas that can be said in one way or not in other ways, that becomes a slippery slope to the undoing of the fabric of democracy and stability, which I think we are already witnessing.”

Facebook in the Future

In addition to the problem of lack of consistency in application of the Facebook Community Standards, there is also a problem of transparency, said Abelow. “Facebook is not transparent about what material it chooses to block or remove advertising from, and there is no easy way to reach Facebook to try and dispute their censorship, either. They are playing the judge and the jury without any clear rules,” he said.

Shwartz Altshuler agreed with this sentiment. She said, “The community standards are vague, and it’s difficult to know what exactly are the criteria being used in order to enforce them. Lack of transparency of enforcement of policy is another problem.”

However, she said, social media platforms are trying to sharpen their community standards to be more precise and transparent for the users and courts.

Abelow was not as optimistic: “If you ask me whether Facebook will make the changes, no, I don’t think so.”

Breaking Israel News tried to reach Facebook Israel several times in order to better understand how these decisions are made and whether they are working to better clarify standards and increase transparency for users, but did not receive a response.

On Facebook’s official community standards page, it is written, “We want people to feel safe when using Facebook.”

If content is deemed as abusive, they may remove it and disable accounts. Such content includes direct threats, self-injury, dangerous organizations, bullying and harassment, attacks on public figures, criminal activity, sexual violence and exploitation, regulated goods, adult nudity and sexual activity, hate speech, violence and graphic content, and fraud and spam.

However, Facebook notes, “Sometimes we will allow content, if newsworthy, significant or important to the public interest – even if it might otherwise violate our standards. Because of the diversity of our global community, please keep in mind that something that may be disagreeable or disturbing to you may not violate our Community Standards.”

This, of course, begs the question of how the line is drawn between newsworthy and interesting, and abusive content.

The Israeli government has condemned Facebook for allowing anti-Israel incitement to terrorism, leading to meetings between the government and senior Facebook officials in 2016.

“In 2016, when the knife intifada broke out, there were claims that some terrorists were being exposed to incitement online and then they went to grab the knife and stab Jews,” said Shwartz Altshuler.

A Palestinian Fatah Facebook post glorifying violence. (Palestinian Media Watch)

Since, Israeli security officials have been monitoring Facebook for such material, and reporting it to the company. In 2017 alone, said Shwartz Altshuler, the Israeli government brought 12,000 removal requests to Facebook, 80 percent of which were accepted.

“There was a huge rise in the number of removal requests since 2015,” she told Breaking Israel News.

But a dilemma continues to ensue when Israel presents to Facebook posts or pages that contain criminal offenses in Israel, but are not criminal offenses by other countries’ standards.

“Facebook doesn’t want to infringe American citizens’ freedom of speech, for example. So they announced that they would remove the posts in question only from Israeli IP users,” maintained Shwartz Altshuler. “So I won’t see a post inciting terrorism from Israel, published in Yemen, for example, but the guy in Palestine does,” she explained.

Another dilemma, said Shwartz Altshuler, is the dilemma of a government limiting free speech not only of terrorists, but of its citizens, for example, those who speak out against the government.

“Any kind of legislation having to do with speech gives both the Attorney General and administrative courts the power to censor free speech in Israel,” she said. “Legislation may not be limited to incitement to terror, privacy, and public shaming, I think it might impose free speech in Israel.”

While choosing to limit certain social media posts and not others can be a threat to free speech and the democratic process, Shwartz Altshuler maintained that so too can not limiting social media posts. In the United States, under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, online platforms receive legal immunity from most of the content posted by their users.

“Without any liability by the platforms, we will be in a very problematic social condition, because we see that social media platforms are trying not to be responsible for things being used to influence voters,” claimed Shwartz Altshuler.

Biased censoring, or not removing fake news that is being used to influence voters, undermines “the root of what elections are, based upon the assumption that each and everyone of us is making an autonomous decision on who to rule the country,” she told Breaking Israel News.

She concluded, “Once someone influences the citizen’s decision making processes or final decisions in a tailor-made way, then we can’t call ourselves a democracy,” maintaining that social media platforms not taking responsibility for these issues, in addition to breaches of privacy, are the main challenge to human rights and freedom of speech in the 21st century.

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