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Opinion

Facebook’s secret blacklist is a powerful tool for moderating thought and free speech, and projecting US foreign policy globally

Despite the appearance of conflict between Facebook and the US government, there is an insidious, censorious division of labour between the company and the State Department, enabling both to evade public accountability.

The publication by The Intercept of Facebook’s secret blacklist of ‘Dangerous Individuals and Organisations’ (DIO) it does not allow on its platform – from white supremacists, hate groups, militarised social movements, and alleged terrorists – provides a glimpse into how the social media network moderates content that it asserts could lead to violence offline.

There are two worrying dimensions to this latest revelation. The first is that the list, particularly regarding the terrorism category, is drawn mainly from a sanctions list maintained by the Treasury Department and created by George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

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These restrictions can be traced back to 2012, when in the face of growing alarm in Congress and the United Nations about online terrorist recruiting, Facebook  added to its ‘Community Standards’ a ban on “organisations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity.” Initially, this was modest. But today, this has morphed into what’s known as the DIO policy. This restricts what Facebook’s  2.9 billion active global users (not just US citizens) can say about an enormous and ever-growing roster of entities it and the US State Department deem to be beyond the pale.

Facebook is effectively projecting US foreign policy globally. And if that’s not worrying enough, this legitimises its growing power to police global free speech – an ability that has no limits because it is beyond public accountability.

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This is the second and most worrying component of the DIO. Facebook has carte blanche to control the thoughts and speech of billions of internet users around the world.

The category of hate groups or individuals, including long-dead historical figures like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, is insidious. When Facebook bans a group or people, it places severe constraints on the public’s ability to discuss or even merely depict events or ideas.

How Facebook decides what to ban or what constitutes ‘prohibited’ comments is genuinely chilling. Internal materials previously reported by  The Guardian and  Vice show how imprecisely Facebook defines what it means for a user to ‘praise’, ‘support’, or ‘represent’ a DIO listee. Facebook is effectively asking its moderators to second guess what is in the minds of its users. It’s not only speech, but thoughts, that are being policed globally.

Facebook’s moderators are not psychologists. Even if they were, moderating thought and speech should not be treated with such contempt. Yet, it is worse than that. Its global content moderators are an outsourced army of poorly paid hourly contractors who, along with automated software, are expected to work out what constitutes forbidden ‘praise’ or what meets the threshold of ‘support’, among other criteria, and then decide if it’s acceptable for their specific geographic location, language, and context.

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It is a remarkably flippant and cavalier approach towards upholding such fundamental freedoms. But this is not flippant. It is deadly serious.

The notion that a private company, in pursuit of profit, has the power to effectively shoehorn the thoughts and speech of billions of people from hundreds of countries and countless cultures into a tidy framework decreed from Silicon Valley and the US State Department should be a major cause for global concern.

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