Opinion | The implications of ‘Faceblock’

By Pierre Tito Galla

Recently, reports have been presented to the public that, in the fight against misinformation and disinformation, the social media platform has done two things in the Philippines.

First, Facebook has disallowed the sharing of webpages and websites determined to be purveyors of “fake news”. Second, Facebook has entered into an agreement with the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) members Vera Files and Rappler.

Both actions have been controversial, with accusations of “censorship”, “biased gatekeeping”, and similar, particularly from those who are not in favor of the two journalism outfits.

Regarding this issue, among the core principles that inform the ICT advocacy, in so far as the rights component of the rights, governance, development, and security anchors of Democracy.Net.PH is concerned, are the principles that “our rights online are our rights offline” and “the solution to bad speech is more speech, not less.”

What are the implications of “Faceblock” for the Philippines?

Censorship? No

As far as the Constitution is concerned, only the State is barred from the control of content, whether online or offline, except in very specific instances, such as criminal speech, child pornography, and others. Censorship is when the government prevents a person from the exercise of the right to free expression.

That said, Facebook is a private company. Those who use the platform are subject to what are called “community standards” and “terms of service”.

It is not censorship when Facebook disallows certain content to be posted, when such content is determined to be violative of community standards and terms of service; Facebook has all the right to control the content that is uploaded into the platform.

The question now is: while Facebook has the right, is it right? A rough, real-world analogy would go as such: given that an employee code of conduct, which is part of an employment contract, bars an employee from bad-mouthing other employees, engaging in rumor-mongering, and from other acts of speech that are deemed detrimental to the organization — is the company well within its rights to disallow such speech and discipline the employee?

Many would answer yes, the company is. If the employee wishes to continue to be part of the organization, then the employee should comply with the agreed-upon code of conduct; if the employee wishes instead to be free to express himself in a manner that the organization frowns upon, then the employee has the choice to look for another organization that allows such behavior.

So too with “Faceblock”; if a user is no longer happy with having to comply with Facebook community standards, the user is free to join another social networking service. However, as we will discuss later, this would not be too good an idea, in so far as the marketplace of ideas is concerned.

‘Biased’ fact-checking? Push for choice

Various media outfits have reported that there are many citizens who are unhappy with the choice of Rappler and Vera Files as fact-checkers for Facebook, and likewise there have been reports that the government is similarly unhappy with Facebook’s choice.

If indeed the charge of “biased gatekeeping” has some truth in it, that Vera Files and Rappler “do not present a clear picture” and thus their fact-checking for Facebook can be suspect, then the remedy is not that you ask Facebook to stop using the services of Vera Files and Rappler.

The counter should be this: encourage your fact-checker of choice to be accredited by the International FactChecking Network and then ask Facebook to then allow your accredited fact-checker of choice to perform fact-checking.

If the issue is “bias” due to different points of view from across the political spectrum, then push for various other fact-checkers from across the political spectrum to be part of the fact-checking initiative. The more fact-checkers that inform the public, the better.

Surprisingly, as of this writing only two local organizations are part of the fact-checking network. If Vera Files and Rappler are distasteful to you, tell your fact checker of choice to be accredited.

The process appears to be simple (the IFCN Code of Principles here), and if you do not wish for only Rappler and Vera Files to be the only local accredited organizations judging the content you wish to share, you can encourage other fact checkers to get accredited and then be utilized by Facebook.

The pitfalls of ‘Faceblock’

Leaving Facebook because people are unhappy with the way their desired content is being treated, or because the fact-checkers are undesirable, and moving to another social networking service that will not do as Facebook is doing creates the unfortunate situation of “silos”.

Worse than “echo-chambers” — wherein a social network is informed by a certain set of views, and only rarely do opposing views come in and be discussed — the silo effect is such that opposing views cannot enter at all, nor influence other communities.

It may sound farfetched, but the logical end would be for supporters of one political view be in one social networking service, and those of another political view be a community in another social networking service. There would be no opportunity for dialogue, for engagement, for discourse.

The reinforcement that one’s views are only the correct ones would be even stronger; a “flywheel effect” that will prevent open-minded discussion. There will be no marketplace of ideas, where citizens can discuss their opinions informed by facts established to be true; there will only be independent monopolies and islands, where no exchanges are possible.

The solution: literacy and critical thinking These measures and counter-proposals of fact-checking and platform-switching are not sustainable. There can come a time when there is too much content to be vetted by a finite number of fact-checkers, and popular social networking services are currently few and far between.

The solution does not lie in an “arms race” of fact vs. fake; the solution lies in the education of our citizenry. A literate citizenry — not merely in digital literacy, but more importantly equipped with critical thinking, the desire to get to what is truly factual and not merely accepted as fact — is the solution to these issues.

Education towards critical thinking is key, and not merely the classes in our schools, but in our communities, our families, and amongst oursocial circles. That is a difficult task; doubtless it could take decades. Until then, stop-gap measures, while unpopular, may unfortunately be necessary towards encouraging more speech instead of less.

The author is the co-founder and co-convenor of Democracy.Net.PH

¹”International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles”. IFCN. https://www.poynter.org/internationalfact-checking-network-fact-checkers-code-principles

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