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26th February 2014

Facebook: the new King Maker

After a spate of human rights pages being deleted from Facebook, Lauren Gorton asks whether it is taking its history-making role seriously

At the beginning of this month Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary, but while celebrations where in order for Mark Zuckerberg and co, human rights activists and political journalists alike had other concerns regarding the social media behemoth. They attempted, in vain, to raise awareness of the site’s role and responsibilities as a modern day history maker. Rather than congratulations, the occasion was met instead with a resurgence of criticisms volleyed at the social media site for its deletion of pages and posts associated with human rights groups.

Such criticisms originally peaked in 2012, when Facebook was forced to apologise for the deletion of a post discussing human rights breaches in Syria. The deletion was justified as being in line with Facebook’s cyber-bullying policies, after their complaints centre was bombarded by objections labelling the post as offensive. In fact, the post was a link to the Human Rights Watch website which had just exposed the use of torture centres by Syrian Intelligence Services.

Despite the controversy, this year has seen the deletion of entire human rights pages, such as the Kafranbel Media Centre, the Daraa al-Mahata Local Coordination Committee and the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights. Besides documenting the conflict in Syria, such pages are a crucial means for human rights activists to catalogue evidence for war crime trials in a theoretical post-Assad Syria. In a heavily censored country, they provide some of the most truthful depictions of the Syrian conflict.

Yet many such pages are deleted overnight without warning. Where warning is given, only a short time limit is provided to remove or edit the posts, which, in a country without reliable broadband connection, usually means information will be lost forever.

Of course this is no grand conspiracy by Facebook; the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army has claimed ‘credit’ for the latest in what is an on-going series of cyber-war tactics. Such tactics also include the hacking and destruction of human rights pages, typically through viral software and the flooding of comment sections of prominent media websites. The Guardian, CNN and the Atlantic, to name but a few, have all recently seen their comments pages flooded with pro-Assad support, preventing criticisms from being expressed or highlighted. Where the Internet was once the strongest tool of dissidence for activists, it too has become a point of territorial dispute.

Today then, Facebook is playing the same role as the printing press of bygone times. But despite the insistence that with the help of social media anyone’s voice can be heard, providing the potential for history to be written by the victims as opposed to the victors, the Facebook scandal has demonstrated that this is not as simple as we presume. Even when an individual or a group can create pages, it appears that thanks to the deletion of content we don’t always get the intended picture. In this respect it seems more accurate to describe Facebook as the unintended editors of history, deleting parts of the truth and in some instances preventing entire stories from ever being heard.

Facebook, therefore, finds itself in a surprising position of power, arguably one which is a far stretch for a company which started its humble origins as the appearance rating website, Facemash.

But perhaps this is not an entirely unpredictable outcome. Facebook creator and CEO Zuckerberg has always said the dream of Facebook was to be far more than just a company. In a personal letter to potential investors, Zuckerberg suggested that his ambition was to give people a voice through Facebook, in doing so transforming society and encouraging progress.

Through this liberal disposition, Facebook is now both a modern warzone and a modern history maker. Yet the cyber-bullying policies in place are proving woefully inadequate to deal with the responsibility of effectively policing a complex arena of debate.

Although most would argue that this is an unfair pressure to place on the shoulders of a social media site, even a goliath like Facebook, ultimately this is a self-inflicted responsibility. A better claim then perhaps is that it is unfair for Facebook not to make good on its promise to provide a voice to the oppressed. The quote from Spiderman’s uncle Ben springs to mind that “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Either way, the question of whether or not it is right or wrong for Facebook, or any social media site, to have such a responsibility is now irrelevant. The invitation of a haven for free speech has already been extended to and accepted by activists and individuals all over the world. And despite the warnings of charitable NGOs such as the Canadian SecDev Foundation as to the dangers of relying on Facebook, it is obvious to see why people still choose to do so. After all, few human rights websites have captivated a global audience estimated at over 600 million users.

Perhaps then it is time for Facebook to step up and to start working more closely with human rights groups and official institutions, such as the UN, to ensure that such precious information and pieces of history cannot be lost. For although Facebook now has the power to make history, no institution or company should ever have the power to edit history, least of all at the click of a button.

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