Recently, there have been reports that content involving the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mysteriously disappearing from Facebook. The Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) has complained that “many threads in various pro-Israel and pro-JIDF groups have mysteriously disappeared,” while others have complained that anti-Zionist content has disappeared, and one girl alleged that Facebook has prevented her from using hashtags such as “#gaza” and “#palestine.”
But, who is to blame for this censorship? Are the controversy-avoiding authorities at Facebook exerting censorship over the masses, or is this a case of user-generated censorship?
[Facebook’s] self-policing mechanisms, which allow users to report “inappropriate content,” seem to be to blame. The flagging system, meant to prevent the posting of porn where minors can see it, is easily abused by people with a political agenda. And with only 800 employees overseeing 140 million users, it’s impossible for Facebook customer service to keep up with all the disputes.
Sites such as Blogger, Flickr, MySpace and Youtube (who recently removed some videos posted by the Israel Defense Forces in reponse to user complaints) use similar self-policing or flagging mechanisms. How do these flagging systems work? According to Annalee Newitz of The San Francisco Bay Guardian:
Generally what Google does if you get a lot of flags is make your blog impossible to find… This is censorship, user-generated style. And it works because the only way to be seen in a giant network of user-generated content like Blogger (or MySpace, or Flickr, or any number of others) is to be searchable.
According to Newitz, the democratization brought about by the internet may also give rise to the tyranny of the mob:
Now that anyone with access to a computer and a network connection can post almost anything they want online for free, it’s also increasingly the case that anyone with computer access and a few friends can remove anything they want online. And they do it using the same software tools.
Whether the recent censorship of the conflict in Gaza comes from Facebook, or from users, or from the self-policing structures that Facebook has put in place, it seems the social tools that can promote discussion can also be used to quell it.