When Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook Live last year he said: “We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are as time goes on.” While for many people Facebook is a place to post endless pictures of perfect holiday moments, for some of its 2 billion users it is a place to live stream murders, rape, torture and suicides. That is about as raw and visceral as it gets. And yet it is just what Facebook, which continually states that it is not a media company, can be used for.
If you ask users to provide unfiltered content, to share their lives with one another, the darkest parts of humanity can be posted. The onus has been on other users to ask for offensive content to be removed. Computer algorithms are not good at identifying irony any more than they can identify a murder in real time and stop it being streamed.
Free speech is central to the ethos of Facebook and it does not want to be seen to censor it. Mark Zuckerberg’s early hackeresque motto “Move fast and break things” has supposedly been traded in for something more socially responsible. Or has it?
What has been revealed in the Facebook Files is important and genuinely shocking. When humans beings have to monitor the speech of their fellow human beings, which is what moderators do, the moderation guidelines matter. They tell us what that company or community finds acceptable. What has emerged about the internal “ethics” of Facebook is disturbing in itself. Images of non-sexual child abuse can be shown, live-streaming of self-harm, instructions on how to “snap a bitch’s neck” and all kinds of hate speech and racism are permitted. This platform acts as a sewer for the most painful and hateful parts of human existence. Facebook cannot control its content – possibly it has grown so big so that it never will be able to.