When it comes to tech censorship, Jacobin and others have constantly stressed that while it may seem like a temptingly easy solution to a host of problems, the idea looks less appealing when you start to look at the practicalities — practicalities like: Do you trust algorithms and faceless tech bureaucrats to judge what counts as acceptable speech and what doesn’t? Or, would you still want tech companies to do this if the rules they’re following are written by people who don’t share your politics?
A recent story is a perfect example of this dilemma.
According to Vice, Facebook has been removing posts from users and even temporarily banning them from the social media platform if they mention the fact that abortion pills can be sent in the mail. Interest in abortion pills soared after the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade last week, effectively criminalizing abortion in whole swathes of the country.
The news outlet both heard from users who had been censored for making such posts, and made similar posts themselves using a burner account, with posts getting flagged for removal instantly or within minutes. The Associated Press got the same results in its own independent investigation, in which it found that Instagram — which is owned by Facebook, or Meta, as it’s now rebranded — was also near-instantly censoring posts that talked about sending abortion pills across state lines.
The culprit seems to be Facebook’s policy barring “attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana,” as well as firearms — though according to Vice, a post saying that “painkiller pills can be mailed” went up without trouble. Likewise, the AP found that posts about mailing “weed” and “a gun” were left intact. It suggests that contrary to its own policy, Facebook is specifically targeting talk about mailing abortion pills for censorship, possibly for fear of running afoul of right-wing state laws following Roe’s death that make doing so illegal.
All of this should serve as a cautionary tale about the perils of tech censorship for liberals, who have tended to be the most enthusiastic supporters of such policies, led astray by a false media narrative that online misinformation is the root cause of the past few years’ political disruption. As Jacobin and other left-wing voices have stressed, tech censorship might seem like a simple solution for misinformation, but in practice, it’s arbitrary and inconsistently enforced, gets things wrong while being immune to accountability, and has been hugely damaging to independent media, particularly the left-wing press.
And as this case should remind us, what tech companies decide to censor and what not to censor is largely shaped by the intentions of those who hold power at any given time. It doesn’t matter a whole lot that Facebook spox Andy Stone is a longtime Democratic Party apparatchik who likely holds a variety of conventional liberal views on issues like abortion. In a world where the Supreme Court is dominated by a hard-right supermajority that can simply rewrite the law to fit its political beliefs, Facebook will clearly have incentives to push its censorship policies in a more conservative direction no matter what the personal beliefs are of the people who run it.
Tech companies’ more liberal-leaning censorship efforts in recent years have largely been prompted by pressure from Democratic lawmakers. Even if you agree with those efforts, eventually power in Washington will shift to Republicans, most likely after the upcoming midterms, and very possibly in 2024.
With liberal politicians and commentators having established in the public mind that social media platforms can — in fact, that they should — regulate people’s speech, the Right can and likely will use that same tactic to force these companies to go after their particular bugbears, ones most liberals won’t be happy about: things like antifa, Black Lives Matter, criticism of Israel, or, as in this case, abortion advocacy. If you find this alarming, the best way to protect against this is to advocate for and firmly cement very strict limits on these companies’ ability to censor, or at minimum, establish some kind of democratic oversight of it, perhaps by putting such firms under public ownership or treating them as utilities.
The question is whether liberals will learn this lesson. It’s far from clear they will. Following the news of Facebook’s removal of the abortion pill posts, Kara Swisher, a prominent liberal supporter of tech censorship, tweeted sarcastically that it “turns out they can moderate content.” Of course they can — except now they’re “moderating” things that prominent liberals care about.