Last Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the launching of the World Wide Web, the Internet innovation that makes it possible for you to read this article online. How ironic, then, that Facebook, one of the Web titans of new media, may have chosen this auspicious timing to negatively manipulate the newsfeed distribution of the Facebook page of Lt. Col. Allen West, a noted conservative and former member of the House of Representatives. Rep. West raised that possibility in his recent blog, provocatively titled “Is Facebook censoring conservative content?” In the course of a year, his Facebook page had jumped from 197,000 “likes” to nearly a million. But then suddenly this month, West and his web editor noticed that the numbers of “shares” of his page were beginning to drop like a stone. There are only two apparent explanations, and they are not mutually exclusive.
West wonders whether his conservative viewpoints have caused Facebook to slow or hinder the newsfeeds of his posts so that they are no longer being widely disseminated across the Facebook platform to other users. If that is the case, Col. West is in good company. Facebook has, over the last two years, suspended the Facebook pages of other conservatives, including Gov. Mike Huckabee when he came out in favor of traditional marriage, and FOX contributor Todd Starnes when he declared his politically incorrect allegiance to the NRA, the Gospel, and the Southern cooking of Paula Deen. And there are other victims of Facebook’s viewpoint censorship too: special ops military veterans who criticized President Obama’s polices; “Chicks on the Right,” two female commentators who spoke negatively about the White House; a University of North Carolina professor whose page was blocked for making arguments against same-sex marriage; and an Israeli journalist for criticizing the Palestinian Authority. All of this is documented in a whitepaper report that was issued last October by NRB’s John Milton Project for Free Speech.
The other possibility is that Facebook is slowly forcing citizen Facebook page administrators to pay for advertising as the primary way to distribute postings on newsfeeds. Several tech commentators have noted that Facebook has planned for “organic distribution” of page posts to “decline over time” according to marketing documents, thus pushing users to “consider paid distribution.” But isn’t that the free enterprise right of Facebook? Don’t they have the right to monetize their innovation? Of course. But so far, Facebook isn’t divulging whether it is deliberately punishing conservative as well as Christian content by diminishing distribution over news feeds. If that is the case, then it would certainly cast a pall over the statement of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, who stated publicly that he had created his Web phenomenon in order “to make the world more open and connected.”
In the last three years, I have moderated four public discussions on Capitol Hill and in Washington relating to citizen free speech on the Internet, with past participation that has included not only popular media pundits like Gov. Huckabee and Todd Starnes, but also Commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, Congressional staff, and national experts from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, the Heritage Foundation, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty University School of Law, and Alliance Defending Freedom. The consensus has been that there is a problem on Facebook and other new media platforms when it comes to shutting down politically incorrect viewpoints. Further, everyone seems to agree that a substantive dialogue about free speech values between Facebook and groups like NRB’s John Milton Project would be a good place to start. NRB has reached out, but our phone is not ringing. Meanwhile, Facebook is eagerly meeting with left-leaning groups to make sure that its communications platform meets their ideological demands. My message to Facebook is this: to quote Mr. Zuckerberg, let’s get “connected.”
By Craig Parshall
Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters
Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech
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Published: March 20, 2014