An Evaluation of Facebook’s Free Speech Policies

After Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke at Georgetown University and testified on Capitol Hill in front of the House Financial Services Committee, Facebook and its free speech policies have once again come under harsh scrutiny.

For years, Facebook has faced a wide range of criticisms regarding its free speech policies, many of which are back under public debate, after recent appearances by Mark Zuckerberg. A widely cited example of Facebook’s problems with free speech can be observed in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election when Facebook allowed misleading and factually inaccurate ads to run on its platform. Created by Russian “trolls,” these ads were disseminated from fake accounts that were not connected to actual people. Also, Facebook’s guidelines for removing hate speech have been accused of being insufficiently restrictive. One horrific example of this came last year when Facebook was used as a mechanism to help spark a genocide in Myanmar.

In the wake of these failings, Facebook has altered many of its policies, doubled down against dangerous content, and worked to maintain free speech standards. Facebook’s commitment to allowing expression and speech, even if controversial, is laudable and representative of our nation’s democratic principles. Facebook’s policies effectively uphold its users’ freedom to express themselves, while providing entirely sensible limits on the worst aspects of speech and expression. 


Facebook’s Policies:

Since these incidents and widespread criticism that followed, Facebook has altered many of its policies and invested heavily in security measures to regulate dangerous free speech. In his speech at Georgetown University on Oct. 17, 2019, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the guarantee of free speech in The First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not apply to private companies, but he responded that freedom of expression is central to Facebook’s mission, which seeks to “give people a voice and bring people together.” Zuckerberg argued that since Facebook is involved in public discourse and freedom of speech is closely tied to the company’s mission, Facebook tries to ensure freedom of speech on its platform. However, there are important limits. Facebook does not allow any dangerous speech or expression on its platform, citing examples like terrorist propaganda, bullying, child exploitation, or anything else that could incite violence. In his Georgetown speech, Zuckerberg also reiterated that Facebook stands fundamentally against misinformation. Facebook requires any new accounts to provide a form of government identification and location if it “wants to run political ads.” He contends that this is the most effective way to combat misinformation because the vast majority of intentional misinformation comes from fake accounts. Facebook has also expanded its policies to combat voter suppression and targeted misinformation regarding voting. For example, the platform now prohibits actions such as providing “misrepresentations about the dates, locations, times and qualifications for casting a ballot.”


The Effectiveness of Facebook’s Policies:

Facebook’s defenses against these negative types of speech have come a long way. Facebook now maintains a security budget that, according to Zuckerberg, “is greater than the entire revenue of our company at the time of our IPO earlier this decade.” Within their security budget, Facebook has over 35,000 security employees protecting its users from negative content and preventing potentially dangerous activity. In addition to its employees, Facebook possesses numerous software programs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems that detect and remove harmful content. In fact, the technology has greatly improved, with Zuckerberg even positing that Facebook’s AI systems “identify 99 percent of the terrorist content before anyone even sees it.” Zuckerberg went on to declare that, in its attempt to decrease misinformation spread by fake, or robot, accounts, Facebook’s systems “remove billions of fake accounts per year.”

To summarize his company’s position of free speech, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook has two key commitments: “to remove content when it could cause real danger as effectively as we can, and to fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.”


Harsh Criticism from Capitol Hill:

Not only do many everyday Facebook users find issues with Facebook’s positions, but many members of Congress are pushing for more restrictions. In a particularly poignant exchange, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushed Zuckerberg to explain why he will not regulate political speech by politicians, asking him a series of questions about voting misinformation and incorrect information coming from politicians. To answer the first question, Zuckerberg told the Congresswoman that voting misinformation would not be allowed, but on the second question, he answered that he did not know, before saying that Facebook would not regulate the political speech of politicians, even if their statements were incorrect or misleading. Zuckerberg addressed a similar point in his Georgetown University speech, proclaiming that he doesn’t “think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians … in a democracy.” Later in the hearing, Zuckerberg was pressed by several other members of Congress about the independent, fact-checking agency that Facebook employs and the civil rights task force. The common criticism from lawmakers was that Facebook does not do enough to restrict free speech or combat misinformation.


Analysis Of Facebook’s Policies:

         Despite many objections, Facebook’s policies toward freedom of speech are not only effective at removing truly dangerous content, but they actually are a great tribute to the democratic principles of the United States. Facebook’s positions on speech and expression are quite similar to that of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court. The First Amendment to the Constitution famously asserts that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” [US Constitution, amend. 1, Dec. 15, 1791]. However, it is widely recognized that there should be some limits to free speech. For instance, in the famous Supreme Court Case Brandenburg versus Ohio, the court ruled that controversial or inflammatory speech was protected so long as it did not incite actual violence [Brandenburg v. Ohio,  395 U.S. 444, US Supreme Court 1969]. Facebook’s policies prohibit any speech fitting this description, and it goes even further by prohibiting any hate speech, even if it is clearly not inciting violence. 

Facebook users do not have universal freedom of speech on the platform, nor anything close to it. The platform correctly bans fake accounts for spreading misinformation and censors all “dangerous” content, which is defined quite broadly. But Facebook’s decision to allow free speech and, more specifically, free political speech is admirable. 

In contrast to Facebook, social media giant Twitter announced on Oct. 30 that it would ban political ads from its platform beginning on Nov. 22. Given the societal importance and widespread use of Facebook and Twitter, politicians utilize them to communicate directly with citizens, including some who might not otherwise hear their messages. To ban all political ads is to limit voter knowledge. To limit voter knowledge is to doom our democracy.

A fundamental aspect, perhaps the most fundamental aspect, of the United States is the ability to freely express one’s opinions, beliefs, approval, disapproval, or other judgements, no matter how controversial or unpopular. Facebook’s decision to uphold this ideal ought to be praised.

James McIntyre is a sophomore from Knoxville, Tennessee studying Economics and Political Science.


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