Dear Facebook, instead of free basics, how about giving us free speech?

We all love Facebook. Facebook loves us back. Or at least it used to, till they decided to do away with Free Basics in India. But, hell, these minor setbacks in our relationship apart, I think we still love Facebook. And I’m sure Facebook still loves us back.

To such an extent that Facebook decides on which posts and pictures are good for us and which ones are not. In principle, it is a good idea. There are certain rules and regulations of a civilised world that any democratic societal set up, real or virtual, needs to follow. And Facebook being a strong and smart reflection of what we are, has a set of Community Standards that one has to adhere to. If and when one is not quite adhering to those Community Standards, Facebook has the right to unilaterally debar you from posting on the network. Or, in the worst case scenario, throw you out, no questions asked, or answered.

So far, so good. Freedom of speech is linked to respecting that freedom. Live with it.

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Having said that, while Facebook gives us this lovely platform to communicate and converse – and we love you back, Mark & Co. – it cannot be a totalitarian regime, where they decide on what is good, bad or ugly for us. Which is precisely how things seem to be working right now! These calls on whether or not a post or picture is violating the Community Standards seem to be subjective calls, based on the opinion of Employee A or Employee B sitting in front of a screen with Rulebook.doc  open, deciding what works and what does not, basis the time of the day, week or month.

And that’s clearly not how things should be.

In these times of the democratization of the political discourse, media, opinion makers and opinion seekers; in these times of people getting exposed within seconds to anything and everything that has ever happened, is happening or will happen around the world; in these times of reference points continuously changing and evolving, the lines between what is right and what is wrong have totally blurred. Facebook needs to, therefore, stop overbearingly imposing these Standards on us. Or at least relook at how things are happening. These guidelines need to be based on the collective wisdom of the people using FB, and the social stratosphere enveloping them. And, most importantly, these calls cannot be randomly subjective. That’s being both bossy and boorish.

Here’s Exhibit A. Orijit Sen is an established artist. He paints.  Sometimes he paints nudes. And, then, sometimes he uploads them on his FB profile. His painting “She came in through the bathroom window…” got reported for nudity, and FB removed the picture. It violated the dreaded Facebook Community Standards. Another friend of Orijit put up the same picture, somebody reported again, and this time, Facebook did NOT remove it because it did NOT violate the Community Standards. The same painting! Encouraged, a third friend also put it up. But in her case, not only was the picture removed, but her account was also suspended for 24 hours! Same painting. Same voice urging the same freedom of expression. Three similar same cases. Three different outcomes. Wow.

1.0

Facebook Block

Now, either the guys handling these complaints are plain confused or they are power lords or they are high on something good. I hope for their sakes, it is reason number three.

Exhibit B. Rahul Raj, the man behind the very popular Facebook page Bhak Sala (and also a key custodian of OpIndia, in the spirit of complete disclosure), reposts something by Indian Express on the page Bhak Sala. The post was a link to an article published in Indian Express about Arvind Kejriwal’s picture adorning posters with Bhindranwale’s images in it, urging people to celebrate Bhindranwale’s birthday. I would not get into WHYs and HOWs of the story or how smart or stupid Kejriwal is. But this was a legitimate story published by a mainstream national daily. All what Rahul did was post it with a clean, uncomplicated and straightforward line preceding it. That, according to him, AAP celebrating Bhindranwale’s birthday was shameful politics by Kejriwal and his team. By no stretch of imagination was the line or the news article violating the community standards of any community, even if Arvind Kejriwal was heading that community! And yet, Facebook chose to block Rahul’s account. No removal of posts, that would be too mild for the non-believer, let’s just suspend him from posting. Because we can, yay! This, when Indian Express had also published the story, and it had totally survived inviting the wrath of the digital Big Brothers!

Bhak Sala

Facebook Ban

This wasn’t Rahul’s first brush with Facebook’s random policies. According to them, he is a repeat offender. He may be the man behind one of India’s best youth communities honing original thoughts through active debates and discussions. BUT then again, he also has the dubious distinction of having his account suspended for 30 days for posting a picture pertaining to ISIS which showed a young man being burnt alive, with his PoV on the picture/ ISIS. The picture was widely shared across social media. It was already in public domain. But Facebook decided to ban him for 30 days. Again, while I understand the rationale behind censoring and censuring what Facebook thinks are extreme thoughts, I still cannot fathom how the decision was taken and how the ‘punishment’ was derived! What was the logic behind suppressing a debate in both these cases pertaining to Rahul? Why not let the voices be heard!

Bhak Sala

In Facebook’s defence, it is not as if these actions are taken suo moto by them. They react after somebody files a complaint against a post or a picture. So while we can take FB to the cleaners, the dissent is primarily stemming not from FB, but from us, our varied belief systems, and our understanding of rights and wrongs. We need to look as much within as we expect FB to look into its algorithms and systems and policies.

And now Exhibit C. A cartoon by Kashmiri artist Mir Suhail Qadiri, blocked within an hour of it getting posted. Why does the post not follow Facebook Community Standards? Because it talks about how the roots growing from Afzal Guru’s grave in Tihar Jail are connecting to the roots of Kashmir. And because the artist refers to Afzal Guru as Shaheed. Facebook considered it hate speech, and boom! Fair enough. Afzal Guru was a convicted terrorist, an enemy of the state, given death penalty by the Supreme Court of India for the attack on Indian Parliament, and calling him a martyr isn’t really siding with the law of the land. But then again, there could be a set of people who may find the idea of blocking a cartoon depicting a different perspective of a conflict-torn Kashmir not really in sync with the idea of democracy!

Afzal

Because voices, even if they are the voices of dissent, should be heard. Or NOT.

I would leave this to the opinions of the learned, discerning readers of OpIndia. Three cases of apples, apples and apples to compare. Meanwhile, I shall be Zen about it all, and get back to posting cat pictures on Facebook. :)

PS: In other news: http://tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/if-your-last-name-is-chutia-your-fb-ac-might-be-blocked-209806.html

 

(Vaibhav Vishal is the Chief Creative Officer with a Mumbai based entertainment firm. The views expressed in this article are his own, though he hopes they find some resonance at the FB offices, too. He is @ofnosurnamefame on Twitter and can be seen on http://ofnosurnamefame.com every now and then.)

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