Hard Questions: Where Do We Draw the Line on Free Expression?

Hard Questions is a series from Facebook that addresses the impact of our products on society. Today we’re hosting a panel discussion moderated by Andrew McLaughlin, co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, to discuss the intersection of technology and free speech. The panelists will be Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Policy Management; Malkia Cyril, executive director of The Center for Media Justice; Geoffrey King, a journalist, attorney and lecturer at UC Berkeley; and Daniella Greenbaum, former reporter at Business Insider. Click here to watch the panel discussion. 

By Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy

People post some truly vile things on Facebook. Baseless conspiracy theories, offensive ideas, bald-faced lies. However demeaning, polarizing or plainly false these posts might be, the question is whether people should be allowed to express such views. Do posts like these constitute free expression or should they be erased entirely?

Governments around the world face similar challenges and the laws that define their values run the spectrum. Many European countries encourage expression but have laws against hate speech, while the US holds firmly to the ideal that free speech is a constitutional right that the government should not interfere with. And in dictatorial or authoritarian regimes, any sort offensive or simply oppositional speech is often forced into silence.

Facebook is not a government but it is a platform for voices around the world. We moderate content shared by billions of people and we do so in a way that gives free expression maximum possible range. But there are critical exceptions: we do not, for example, allow content that could physically or financially endanger people, that intimidates people through hateful language, or that aims to profit by tricking people using Facebook.

While we’re not bound by international human rights laws that countries have signed on to, we are a member of a global initiative that offers internet companies a framework for applying human rights principles to our platforms. We look for guidance in documents like Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which set standards for when it’s appropriate to place restrictions on freedom of expression. ICCPR maintains that everyone has the right to freedom of expression — and restrictions on this right are only allowed when they are “provided by law and are necessary for: (a) the respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of the public order, or of public health or morals.”

The core concept here is whether a particular restriction of speech is necessary to prevent harm. Short of that, the ICCPR holds that speech should be allowed. This is the same test we use to draw the line on Facebook. After all, giving everyone a voice is a positive force in the world, increasing the diversity of ideas shared in public discourse. Whether it’s a peaceful protest in the streets, an op-ed in a newspaper or a post on social media, free expression is key to a thriving society. So, barring other factors — and there are several crucial ones that I’ll discuss — we lean toward free expression. It’s core to both who we are and why we exist.

Exceptions to Free Expression

To understand what is allowed on Facebook — and why — it’s helpful to look more closely at what is not. First is the personal harm category. Posts that contain a credible threat of violence are perhaps the most obvious instances where restricting speech is necessary to prevent harm. Disagreement and even disdain are important parts of free expression, but when someone crosses the line and calls for actual violence or makes a threat that sounds real, we take down the post and work with the appropriate authorities when we think there’s a high risk of physical harm.

Hate speech too can constitute harm because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may have dangerous offline implications. It is perhaps one of the most challenging of our standards to enforce because determining whether something is hate speech is so dependent on the context in which it is shared. Even in countries where there are very detailed laws about hate speech, like Germany, there is disagreement. A German court recently ordered us to restore a statement which seemed to compare migrants to “vermin” and “parasites” that we had previously removed under our hate speech standards. The court viewed the statement differently and felt it related to the conduct of specific individuals and not migrants generally. I talked more about our approach to hate speech, and how we determine meaning and intent, in a previous post.

The Right to Say Something That’s Not True

It’s important to note that whether or not a Facebook post is accurate is not itself a reason to block it. Human rights law extends the same right to expression to those who wish to claim that the world is flat as to those who state that it is round — and so does Facebook. It may be the case that false content breaks our other rules — but not always. And rather than blocking content for being untrue, we demote posts in the News Feed when rated false by fact-checkers and also point people to accurate articles on the same subject.

We also adapt our policies when necessary. Just last month, we made a change to our policy when it became clear that our existing policies didn’t go far enough to defend against imminent violence or physical harm provoked by misinformation. We’ve started working with independent organizations who flag fake news and rumors that will likely have violent, real-world consequences. We then assess their report and take down the post.

Grounded in Core Principles

Trying to piece together a framework for speech that works for everyone — and making sure we effectively enforce that framework — is challenging. But as we make clear in our Community Standards, every policy we have is grounded in three core principles: giving people a voice, keeping people safe, and treating people equitably. The frustrations we hear about our policies — outside and internally as well — come from the inevitable tension between these three principles.