Future Tense

Facebook Sparks Another Free Speech Debate by Removing Anti-Lockdown Event Posts

A man in a white t-shirt and sunglasses carries a sign that reads "UNLOCK OUR ECONOMY."
Protesters gather at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus to protest the stay-at-home order on Monday. Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

This week, Facebook found itself at the heart of another debate over free speech when it decided to clamp down on the anti-lockdown rallies brewing on its platform. Protesters across the country have used Facebook to organize groups such as “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” and “End the Lockdown PA,” first to vent, then to coordinate in-person gatherings against the coronavirus shutdown orders that have shuttered most businesses in the U.S. The protesters view the lockdowns and Facebook’s latest move as infringing on their civil liberties.

Facebook said that it plans to take down certain posts on anti-lockdown protests created with the Events feature, and on Monday, it removed posts in California, Nebraska, and New Jersey. (Posts on its News Feed or group pages may not be removed, the company told CNN.) “We remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful,” a Facebook spokesperson told Politico.

Facebook determined which posts to remove by consulting with individual states and their social distancing policies. (The states did not ask Facebook to take down the content, Politico reported.) Facebook told CNN that it is working to discern whether anti-lockdown protests are prohibited in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which are currently being targeted for protests by a trio of far-right, pro-gun activists.

The decision aligns with Facebook’s newly aggressive approach to misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has included growing its fact-checking program, removing content that spreads dangerous information about the pandemic, and notifying users if they have interacted with harmful misinformation. While other social media companies, such as Twitter and WhatsApp, have also expanded their misinformation policies to combat the current “infodemic,” Facebook appears to be the first to remove content that promotes in-person organizing.

But this move has proved far more contentious than nixing hoaxes. It’s sparked a dispute over whether it’s acceptable for a private company to have control over a digital “public square” and prompted criticism from some civil liberties organizations and conservative figures, including Donald Trump Jr., who called the move “chilling” and “disturbing.” Sen. Josh Hawley equated it to free speech now being illegal, and Dan K. Eberhart, a conservative businessman and commentator, argued on Twitter that it violated Americans’ “constitutional right to assembly.” Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy, and technology project, said that Facebook shouldn’t be censoring political speech online.

For many on the right, this has only become further evidence of anti-conservative bias in the tech industry. “Given Big Tech’s history of bias and censorship, I’m deeply concerned that they and government officials are partnering not to protect public health, but to shut down views with which they disagree,” Sen. Ted Cruz said in a statement. “Now, more than ever, companies like Facebook should focus on connecting people, not shutting down communities because they hold different views.” Alex Marlow, the editor of Breitbart News, summed up the sentiment at its most extreme when he called Facebook’s actions “truly Orwellian.”

Yet, despite the pushback, Facebook’s decision appears so far to be one of the company’s more straightforward approaches to removing content. Rather than deciphering factual accuracy or what constitutes potential for “imminent physical harm,” Facebook is drawing the line on freedom of expression in a clear-cut way: It’s using state executive orders. (In Nebraska’s case, that order was issued by a Republican governor.) While the question of reopening the country has increasingly become a partisan issue, with Trump advocating to “LIBERATE” states, states with both Democratic and Republican governors remain under strict lockdown. And if anti-lockdown protests are prohibited under their rules, Facebook has shown a new willingness to act.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.