Trump and Facebook: Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?

Should Facebook have removed Donald Trump comments characterized as hate speech  – or does his position as Republican presidential nominee make his words an important source of public information?

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
U.S. Army vet Claude Copeland, center, is joined by veterans as he speaks during a press briefing outside a Donald Trump news conference in May. The veterans were opposing what they considered the Republican candidate's use of hate speech. Facebook recently concluded that removing "hate speech" posts from the candidate's account would constitute censorship.

Facebook, the social media site, is squarely in the middle of a tussle over free speech and hate speech this election cycle.

After Donald Trump posted a link to a statement in which he called for Muslims to be banned from the US, viewers and employees flagged the post as hate speech. But the link was not removed, over concerns by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the move would amount to censorship, a recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal found. The company has argued that political discourse would be negatively affected if the comments were removed.

The debate has highlighted a clash of ideals in the country, where a candidate millions of Americans find hateful is beloved by millions more. And it gives Facebook – seen by some as a shill for the left, yet used extensively by the Trump campaign – the responsibility of deciding what should and should not be made public, with all the election-shaping power that comes with it.

Social media, precisely because it is a platform for people to share their own views, is not subject to Federal Communications Commission regulations that call for media to provide some degree of balance. However, all the social media platforms have policies about what content is and is not appropriate.

Facebook’s own policy states that, “Content that attacks people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease is not allowed.” 

Under that policy, employees argued, the company should have removed Mr. Trump’s statement about banning all Muslims from the US on the grounds that it attacked people based on their religion. (The candidate has since revised this position, saying that he would focus on keeping individuals from countries with a history of terrorism out of the US).

However, a company spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that context is also important to decisions about whether or not to remove content.

“Many people are voicing opinions about this particular content and it has become an important part of the conversation about who the next US president will be,” she explained. In other words, if Facebook removed the content, it would make it harder for the American electorate to know who Trump was, and what he stood for.

And providing that context is particularly important to Facebook, which is a news source for 44 percent of Americans, a Pew report found. With that in mind, the company has decided to relax its policy in the run-up to the election, the Facebook policy team announced on Friday.

“In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest – even if they might otherwise violate our standards.” It also allows Facebook to maintain political impartiality.

Can the protection of free speech go too far? Letting hate speech go unchecked may be fueling what Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, terms “free speech fundamentalism.” She told the Monitor on Wednesday that sending offensive and hateful messages on Twitter has become “an act of freedom” for alt-right groups.

According to Norman Ornstein, co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” Donald Trump is creating a community of these groups with his social media activities.

“Donald Trump gives this a legitimacy now that allows them both to speak out and to organize in ways that we hadn’t seen before,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm.

This is not the first time that Facebook has been caught up in a debate over its censorship policies. Last month, the company controversially removed an iconic Vietnam War-era photo showing a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. Facebook ultimately agreed to restore the image, published by a Norwegian newspaper, and said the incident would prompt a review of the balance between “free expression” and “keep[ing] our community safe.”

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