March 23

Passive Censorship, Religion, and Facebook

Not everyone you meet online is going to like what you have to say.

Recently, I was the target of what I call passive censorship on Facebook. I belonged to an MS support group. Although the rules specifically state no posts about religion, there were allowances for prayer requests, and several posts a day talking about God. However, anyone talking about atheism was warned, their posts deleted, and if they did not take the hint that secularism was not allowed, like me, they would be banned, even if they followed the other rules. One admin claimed the group owner was an atheist, although nothing was heard from them about the whole thing. So, what the heck is going on here? The same kind of thing that happens in a lot of groups, and many people accuse Facebook of doing; passive censorship.

For more than five years, I was an admin on a very successful debate group on Facebook. It was eventually destroyed when a Muslim posted an image of someone being beheaded that was not caught by the admins and he later reported it for graphic violence. That was more active censorship; he very clearly intended to censor our speech. Passive censorship is more subtle, to the point where the person censoring may not even notice it themselves. It usually takes the form of rule manipulation to try and silence speech that is disagreeable. In some cases, this can be admirable; a few years ago, a group of pastors here in Indianapolis limited a Klu Klux Klan rally to the statehouse by registering events at all of the other public spaces in the downtown area. There have been cases where people have blocked access to the WBC without breaking the law. In a way, these are, in themselves, acts of free speech and defiance. The difference is that they do not prevent the speech of another; they are not full censorship. They do not eliminate the speech, only limit its scope.

Additionally, they do not show preferential treatment to one group over another. Granted, if I were to go into a Presbyterian church service on a Sunday morning and proclaim Allah as God, I would be met with, at least, a rightful request to leave. I would be on private property. directly violating rules and upsetting the reason people are there. However, if there was to be a computer trade show, and only Christians were invited, that would be passive censorship.

People have accused Facebook of doing this kind of thing, usually for political purposes. Recently, there was a case of a twelve year old whose account was removed. Allegedly, it was because of a post critical of Obama, but anyone who has read the Facebook TOS knows that the cutoff age is 13.

The thing is that passive censorship requires vague rules to begin with. Without vagaries, there can be no errors of interpretation, and no “benefits of the doubt”. That’s why legal contracts are so specific, long, and carefully worded. Such as a Terms of Service contract.

So, in the case of the MS group that bounced me out, well, so be it. You’ve proven to me that your adherence to your religion is more important than your compassion for your fellow man… which is, ironically, what your religion is supposed to be about.