73 Civil Rights Groups Urge Facebook to Side With Citizens Over the Government

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Eric Risberg/AP File Photo

Facebook Live has been providing the public with a window into gruesome realities.

Facebook’s livestream has become a beacon of light for victims of racial violence, but the company’s attempt to keep control of the narrative is casting a dark shadow.

In a letter to chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg on Oct. 31, 73 civil rights groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Sierra club, to the SumOfUs and and Center for Media Justice, argued that “when the most vulnerable members of society turn to your platform to document and share experiences of injustice, Facebook is morally obligated to protect that speech.”

Facebook Live has been providing the public with a window into gruesome realities. In March 2016, a man in Chicago accidentally captured the gunman shooting him. In June, another Chicagoan filmed his own murder and the following month, Philando Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds used the feature to broadcast the moments after he was fatally shot by the police during a traffic stop.

In August, Facebook cut off access to a young woman’s account at the request of authorities while she was live-streaming her standoff with police. They didn’t want the community to encourage her to push back. 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was eventually shot and killed.

Quartz’s Hanna Kozlowska noted in an era when people are using social media to document their fraught interactions with police, taking control of an account means Facebook is becoming an arbiter of the outcome.

The activist groups are asking for clarity on the social networking giant’s position on removing videos and other content that highlight civil rights issues. The letter takes issue with the deactivation of Gaines’ account, the removal of iconic photographs, reports of suppression of indigenous resistance and of black activists’ content being removed. It also raises questions about the disabling of Palestinian journalists’ accounts following Facebook’s meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

“When Facebook unilaterally censors user content that depicts police brutality at the request of the authorities, it sets a dangerous precedent that further hurts and silences marginalized communities, particularly communities of color,” the letter says.

In some cases, users are more sympathetic to Facebook’s censorship. On June 13, French ISIL sympathizer Larossi Abballa used Facebook Live to threaten a police officer and his partner from the scene where Abballa eventually murdered them bothFacebook’s policies state that extremism is not tolerated on the platform, violence and graphic content is also barred if “they are shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.”

The groups are calling upon Facebook for greater transparency about how it makes decisions to censor content, to clarify the content removal process. They also advocate having the company’s censorship and data-sharing policies audited by an external task force, that Facebook refrains from disclosing customer data to third party agencies unless mandated by law and that they raise the bar for content deletion. If content is blocked, the groups suggests Facebook create a public appeal platform, where users can present their case to get videos reinstated.

“We have received the letter and are reviewing it,” a Facebook spokesperson told Quartz. ”As we recently said, we welcome feedback from our community as we begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest.”

Critics remain skeptical of giving Facebook Live broadcasts a sweeping green signal, they acknowledge effective governance is essential. If a violent video stays on the sight for an extended period of time, that could cause trauma for some. Streaming a victim’s point of view is very different to streaming a perpetrator’s one. They argue disturbing content doesn’t have to live on the site forever or at its full length in order to raise awareness.

Desmond Upton Patton, assistant professor of social work at Columbia University who focuses on how young people of color navigate violence in their communities and on social media platforms, told Quartz in an interview that “Once that video goes viral, we move into a different space, a space of trauma and grief that becomes inescapable.”

The civil rights groups argue if Facebook can strike the right balance, people who are discriminated against based on race, gender, or sexual orientation could come out of the darkness.

“It is important not only for the integrity of its platform and the trust of its community of users, but also for the future of our media,” the 73 proponents for lesser rules and more transparency said. “Because the stories that don’t get shared are as important as the ones that do.”