Facebook has deleted the page of the nationalist and anti-Muslim political organization Britain First, as well as the pages of group leaders Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen. Britain First's page had nearly 2 million followers.
In its statement about the decision to pull the page Wednesday morning, Facebook expressed the laudatory view that "some political opinions might be controversial, but it is important that different views can be shared and we are very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don't like them." It also said that "we are an open platform for all ideas and political speech goes to the heart of free expression."
But Facebook also claims Britain First has repeatedly crossed the lines laid out in the company's definition of hate speech. A look at Britain First's page the night before it was removed backs up that assertion—the group regularly compared Muslims to animals and declared itself "Islamophobic and proud." Grotesque slanders about Islamic pedophilia and videos claiming to show Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups engaging in sacrilege, violence, and bad manners were interwoven with blandly patriotic posts designed to pick up likes and followers.
Britain First and its leaders seem truly awful. Last week Fransen and Golding were convicted of "religiously aggravated harassment," and both are currently jailed for several counts, including banging on the windows of a takeout restaurant and screaming "foreigner" and "pedophile" while children played inside. Fransen was also convicted of shouting abusive comments through the front door of what she wrongly believed to be the home of a defendant in a controversial rape trial of several Muslim men.
Facebook is well within its rights to boot these jerks. It will certainly make for a more pleasant browsing experience. But there are costs to the decision as well. In banning Britain First and others like them, Facebook is choosing to move in the direction of becoming a walled garden rather than a public square.
In an email, a Facebook spokesman told Reason that "the content policies are not intended to neutralize debate or unpopular opinions, rather the problems people run into are because of personal attacks they levy against groups and individuals."
But in attempting to clean up the political discourse, Facebook runs the risk of making things worse in the long run.
Walled gardens are nice. They are certainly legal. And for now, Facebook's garden is large and riotous.
But walled gardens are not truly wild. They do not contain all the weird flora and strange beasts of a forest or jungle.
Facebook is following in the footsteps of Twitter, which imposed a similar ban on Britain First late last year. The group previously made a splash on Twitter when President Donald Trump retweeted three videos posted by Fransen in November, including one that purported to be a Muslim man destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, another claiming to show a Muslim beating up a Dutch boy on crutches, and a mob pushing a teenager off the roof.
Fransen was ecstatic to have earned the attention of Trump, tweeting in all-caps: "The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has retweeted three of deputy leader Jayda Fransen's Twitter videos! Donald Trump himself has re-tweeted these videos and has around 44 million followers! God bless you Trump! God bless America!!"
Like it or not (I don't!), Britain First is a part of the global political conversation. It's a rotten part that makes all the other parts it touches worse off. But it nonetheless represents (at least some slice of) the views held by people as important as the president of the United States. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter will make them easier to ignore. It might suppress their influence. But it won't make them go away. And it could backfire.
After being booted from Twitter, Golding and Fransen announced that they were moving to Gab, a social media site that sells itself as the home of free speech. (The existence of sites like Gab is also an effective argument against the idea that without access to Facebook, groups like Britain First have been deprived of their speech rights. They have not. The right to free speech is not the same thing as the right to shout into someone else's megaphone.) The group also seems to have a substantial presence on YouTube.
Obviously, Fransen and Golding are absolute slugs. It's hard to stick up for the idea that they should be allowed to say their piece anywhere. But as social media and sharing sites grapple with their responsibilities for hosting unappealing and hateful speech, they would do well to remember than bans can give power to an already alienated minority, and can facilitate willful ignorance in the majority.
It's fine to relax inside the walled garden, but we shouldn't forget that there are beasts outside.
Facebook's full statement below:
People come to Facebook to express themselves freely and share openly with friends and family, sometimes this can include their political views. Some political opinions might be controversial, but it is important that different views can be shared and we are very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don't like them.
We are an open platform for all ideas and political speech goes to the heart of free expression. But political views can and should be expressed without hate. People can express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others on the basis of who they are.
There are times though when legitimate political speech crosses the line and becomes hate speech designed to stir up hatred against groups in our society. This is an important issue which we take very seriously and we have written about how we define hate speech and take action against it in our Hard Questions series. We have Community Standards that clearly state this sort of speech is not acceptable on Facebook and, when we become aware of it, we remove it as quickly as we can. Political parties, like individuals and all other organisations on Facebook, must abide by these standards and where a Page or person repeatedly breaks our Community Standards we remove them.
Content posted on the Britain First Facebook Page and the Pages of party leaders Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen has repeatedly broken our Community Standards. We recently gave the administrators of the Pages a written final warning, and they have continued to post content that violates our Community Standards. As a result, in accordance with our policies, we have now removed the official Britain First Facebook Page and the Pages of the two leaders with immediate effect. We do not do this lightly, but they have repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups, which disqualifies the Pages from our service.