Whether you agree with the people protesting the stay at home orders across the country or not, you should be very concerned about the fact that Facebook is now removing posts promoting those protests in at least three states. This isn't political, by the way. We're all on the same side of the fight against Covid-19. I'm also not suggesting that it's wise to defy state guidelines and gather in groups to make a point.
That, by the way, is exactly what happened here where I live in Lansing, Michigan last week. While no one in my family has left our home in weeks--other than my wife who is a nurse--thousands of Michiganders traveled from throughout the state to protest here in the state capital.
It was pretty obnoxious, to be honest, and I suppose you could argue it was foolish. A little embarrassing, really. That said, it was a protest, which is constitutionally protected. Yes, there were people who weren't following social distancing guidelines. Yes, it would be far better for all of us if they were. But that's not the point. This isn't about their behavior.
The point, it turns out, is far more complicated.
Let's start with exactly what Facebook says it has done. According to a company spokesperson, Facebook "reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests on Facebook."
That same spokesperson said the company's policy is to "remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful."
Governors of the states of Nebraska and New Jersey, two states for which Facebook has removed posts, have said that they did not ask the company to do so. Facebook has also removed posts for events in California.
So, to be clear, Facebook is removing posts about events it says violate social distancing guidelines, though the states themselves say they haven't asked it to do so. The states haven't explicitly called the gatherings "unlawful," but Facebook apparently considered them to be.
Let's start out by acknowledging that Facebook is generally free to enforce whatever restrictions it wants on sharing content on its platform as long as those restrictions themselves don't violate the law. I don't think the argument is whether or not Facebook "can" remove the events or posts, but whether or not it "should."
The company's very reasoning shows how problematic it can be to remove controversial content. Either you believe in free expression--even when you disagree with it--or you don't. It's hard to argue that the exercise of a constitutionally protected right is "therefore unlawful." Again, that doesn't mean it's wise, but that isn't the rationale being used.
That distinction is more important than it may seem at first. Once a platform like Facebook starts picking winners, it's only a matter of time before things start to get very ugly. This is, after all, the same company that refuses to remove demonstrably false political ads.
Last year, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech about how the company is committed to allowing free expression on the platform. That's a great goal, but along with free expression comes lots of things we'd rather people not, well, express. If you start removing that expression because the government disapproves, we're in dangerous territory.
Yes, it would be better if people all stayed home. Yes, it would be less obnoxious if people didn't go out and protest. Yes, it would be nice if the whole thing wasn't so politically charged, and yes, it would be nice to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.
When we get there, it would also be nice to know that the platforms we use to express ourselves still respect our right to do so.