Facebook Removing COVID Protest Posts “An Opaque Threat to Free Expression”
PEN America says measures that could prevent dissent must be transparent and legally accountable
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) – Facebook announced this week it would begin removing some posts calling for protests of COVID-19 lockdowns. PEN America today said the decision, while perhaps well intended, presents risks to free expression and assembly.
“Even at this moment, it is unsettling to see Facebook take the step of determining that certain calls to protest warrant removal from the platform,” said Matt Bailey, PEN America’s digital freedom program director. “These are thorny questions at a time when public gatherings clearly pose a public health risk, but the question of who is violating government policies belongs in the hands of governments, not private companies. This looks like a worrisome form of overreach into silencing legitimate political speech on the platform.”
Earlier this week, Vox’s Recode reported that Facebook would begin removing event pages that call for protests against COVID-19 public health and social distancing guidelines. The company also said it would consider such posts “harmful misinformation” in cases where they call for in violation of “government guidance.” Coronavirus lockdown protests have gained momentum in recent days, with organized events in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Details regarding Facebook’s process–such as the level of consultation with local officials, the factors that would lead to removal, and opportunities for recourse on the part of page owners and those posting–remain unclear.
“Facebook has been aggressive in attempting to curb disinformation that can cause direct harm to the public, but all such measures must be done with transparency about new policies and how they are applied,” said PEN America’s Bailey. “As it is, this move appears to represent a potentially problematic delegation of the legal and political accountability of the government to an opaque and privatized process. That approach potentially jeopardizes the First Amendment right to speak and even gather at a moment when we must maintain avenues for expression, even while recognizing the need for some constraints in the interest of public health. Absent greater transparency and accountability in such processes, the potential role of platforms in censoring certain viewpoints and protests could set a worrisome precedent.”