Facebook has long been criticized for allowing too much free speech on its platforms, even when such discussion has veered into the direct promotion of physical violence, advocated dangerous movements, facilitated the organization of militant groups, and more.
But in the wake of last week's indefinite suspension of US President Donald Trump's account, Facebook has now also announced that it will remove all posts that include the phrase 'stop the steal' in the lead-up to the inauguration of incoming US President Joe Biden on January 20th.
As explained by Facebook:
"We are now removing content containing the phrase “stop the steal” under our Coordinating Harm policy from Facebook and Instagram. We removed the original Stop the Steal group in November and have continued to remove Pages, groups and events that violate any of our policies, including calls for violence. We’ve been allowing robust conversations related to the election outcome and that will continue. But with continued attempts to organize events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence, and use of the term by those involved in Wednesday’s violence in DC, we’re taking this additional step in the lead up to the inauguration."
Which makes sense. The Capitol riots served as a turning point, in many ways, as it showed that the discussion around political dissent on Facebook was more than just chatter, it actually lead to large scale civil unrest in response to the election result.
That's why Trump's accounts have also been suspended on Facebook and other platforms, because Trump's constant campaigning against the election result, without evidence to support his claims, has fueled his passionate supporter base, riling them up with baseless assertions of corruption and 'theft'.
Now that Trump's legal challenges have been assessed, and Biden's election victory has been certified, the time has come to move on - and as such, it makes sense for Facebook to push back against claims of election fraud in the interests of maintaining order.
But it won't please Trump supporters, who will see this, once again, as further evidence of mainstream media censorship. It's a difficult balance to strike, but Facebook is taking action in this instance because such discussion does pose an imminent threat, and could lead to harm in the lead-up to the inauguration.
It's disappointing that such a celebratory occasion has been impacted in this way, but given years of attacks on the mainstream media, and the integrity of the press, it makes sense that Trump's supporters are still angry about the result. And we now know that has the potential to ignite further tensions, if left unchecked.
In addition to removing 'stop the steal' posts (which will likely see protestors adopt a new phrase instead), Facebook will also maintain its pause on all political ads in the US (which it implemented before the election), while it will also continue to label posts that contain misinformation about the election result:
"After the inauguration, our label on posts that attempt to delegitimize the election results will reflect that Joe Biden is the sitting president. Our Voting Information Center will stay active on Facebook and Instagram through the inauguration so it can continue to help people find reliable information and updates about the electoral process."
Facebook will also look to promote official news and information about the inauguration via Facebook News, while it's also maintaining it's newly implemented rules around groups that facilitate election discussion:
"Last week, we implemented several [new rules for political discussion groups], including increasing the requirement of Group admins to review and approve posts before they can go up, automatically disabling comments on posts in Groups that start to have a high rate of hate speech or content that incites violence, and using AI to further demote content that likely violates our policies. We’re keeping these measures in place."
Again, some will see these as Draconian measures, and an overstep of control by The Social Network. But given the imminent risks associated in providing a platform for such discussion, there is a logical impetus for Facebook to act.
The broader question then is whether Facebook should have that level of control, and the capacity to dictate what is and is not shown on its platforms. But the discussion around that element shouldn't be leveled at Facebook itself, it should be re-directed to regulatory groups and government officials who have the power to implement new rules and guidelines that would set parameters around such moving forward.
Which will be the next big point of debate in social media speech.