As a social media platform, Facebook has become controlled by bureaucracy and no longer offers fair democratic discourse and debate, writes Craig Minns.
I WAS A LATE ADOPTER of Facebook. I had an account that I opened when I returned to study a few years ago, largely because it was one of the communication channels used by my fellow students. I wasn't interested in the "social" aspects, just its use as a communication tool.
That account was closed a while back; I didn't see a lot of value in the platform at the time.
However, that changed a couple of years ago. I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about and I was once again in a situation in which the platform was a useful communication tool for group coordination. So I set out to find out what I could about the platform and how the whole "social network" aspects worked.
Over the next two years, I accumulated about 3,500 "Facebook friends" and about the same number of "followers" who aren't "friends". This was including many people I know in my real life and many more I wouldn't have met without the platform being available, from all over the world, some of whom have become good friends off the platform.
During this period, I posted quite a lot: reposting memes that others put up, posting links to news items and other sources that I found interesting and so on. The usual sort of thing that many of us do. I also engaged heavily in various groups, particularly political groups representing all sides of politics.
I started to realise that there was an opportunity to engage with people in an environment they were comfortable with and to learn about the way they felt. There was also an opportunity to keep abreast of the political marketing dynamics, as various messaging techniques were being tested in these groups by political players.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm a proud member of the Labor Party and committed to the values that define our Party, but I'm also not shy about my record as an internal critic of the Party when I think it's necessary, as all Labor members should be.
All went well, for some time, with some good, robust discussions on all sorts of topics, which I've thoroughly enjoyed. However, about six months ago, I received an account suspension for what I thought was an innocuous, mildly ironic comment in a thread that had deteriorated to a stream of abuse, much of it directed at me. I looked at the comment and realised that there must be some specific types of phrasing and specific words that the algorithmic mechanism which is used to assess complaints is designed to recognise. It doesn't do irony.
So I served my suspension of 24 hours and came back a little wiser. About three months after this, a similar thing happened; a slightly sarcastic joke was deemed to be "harassment and bullying" and I was suspended for three days. A couple of weeks after that, another joke was assessed the same way.
So I started to look at the pattern of what was going on and I started to realise that there was a group of people who weren't happy with what I was doing and were quickly jumping on any comment that they knew would trigger the suspension response. I thought this was interesting and continued to post, mindful of avoiding turns of phrase or certain word forms - self-censoring, in other words.
I appealed a decision to Facebook's so-called "Oversight Board", which is a group primarily made up of lawyers from various countries, in which I'd been suspended for a running joke about a small group of hecklers on one of my posts in which I referred to them as "the peanut gallery". Apparently, this is intolerable bullying and probably racist. The Oversight Board 'declined to consider [my] appeal' and I was suspended from commenting for seven days.
I decided to close the account after the following exchange, which saw me suspended for 30 days. I posted a humorous meme that many have probably seen, comparing the credibility of the advocates for proper responses to the pandemic with that of those who are trying to derail the process.
I got the usual sorts of responses, including one from an account I've engaged with several times, usually in a reasonably good-natured way, which was directed specifically at me and said simply 'Craig Minns sheep, Baa!'. So I responded with what I thought was good humour and said, 'Baa yourself, you old goat :)'. My comment was immediately removed, within less than a minute.
I appealed this once again to the Oversight Board and once again they declined to consider my appeal.
So I've closed the account.
Facebook has been the subject of all sorts of criticism - much of it justified, some less so - over the years. I see these types of platforms as potentially very useful; as I said above, I've made genuine friendships and reconnected with old friends through the platform.
However, I'm watching it become a tool to divide and censor and worse, to be promoting self-censorship. This is not based on any principle of good citizenship or ethical argument, but simply through its use of rigid rules and its prioritising of a form of politesse in which the claim of offence is enough for the "Facebook Police" to shut down important discussions and silence comment.
The advice given to those who might wish to have a vigorous discussion of ideas is to "block" people you don't agree with, creating divided "silos" in which no opinion other than those which confirm existing views is heard.
It's social networking controlled by bureaucracy at its most petty and it's dysfunctional. Worse, it's arbitrary. I've had discussions that were quite heated on FB as well, but because nobody complained, there was no bureaucratic action.
The mere fact that someone claims offence is sufficient for innocuous comments to be removed and accounts suspended, while quite vile slanders are allowed to remain because the person they were directed at had a thicker skin. Or they remained because the commentator who made them carefully avoided using a form of words that would trigger the complaint algorithm.
That bureaucratic rigidity is being used by those who make a living out of manipulating media to shut down those who might spoil their "messaging" and that's not petty at all, it's a serious threat to democratic discourse and debate, particularly at a time of global crisis in which a global pandemic is being treated as a political opportunity rather than a serious threat by some. Even more so when we have a traditional media which is controlled by just a couple of players and is increasingly failing to act as the Fourth Estate of a democratic society.
This is not confined to one side of politics, it is a strategy being used by extremists on both sides. In the last two examples I cited, it was those on the far-Right who used it, but on previous occasions, it has been those who would identify as being of the far-Left. In both cases, the intent is to prevent rational discussion, which is fatal to their preferred appeals to emotion and prejudice.
Craig Minns is an accidental truckie, frequently bored, a unionist and an armchair philosopher.