Facebook’s reporting system being used to suppress religious freedom, says bipartisan Congressional letter
“Facebook can help prevent harassment, persecution, and violence from gaining any traction on its platform.” – Congressman Jared Huffman
WASHINGTON, DC (Dec. 6, 2019)—Facebook faced accusations this morning of enabling censorship on their platform through a letter from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), co-signed by Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Susan Wild (D-PA), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ).
FACEBOOK A CRITICAL SAFE HAVEN
Huffman’s letter focuses on individuals who have left their religion and are often subject to “shame, ostracization, and even violence” from their family members and former religious peers. Along with atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other secular communities, they use private Facebook pages and groups as a space to communicate without risking harm to their relationships, reputations, and safety.
For individuals abroad as well as many here in the United States, organizing online with like-minded peers offers the only real chance to safely build a community. But as Huffman heard firsthand from Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), a nonprofit that works to support individuals who leave Islam, losing that safe space on Facebook has become a common problem that the company has failed to address.
EXTREMISTS ARE ABUSING FACEBOOK TOOLS
Organized religious extremists are coordinating to co-opt Facebook’s abuse reporting system, which lets users “flag” content like “hate speech,” bullying and harassment, and obscenity for review. In doing so, they manipulate Facebook into denying vulnerable ex-religious and nonreligious individuals access to support groups, instead forcing them either into the public square or the closet.
As Congressman Huffman makes clear in his letter—including through a number of images capturing religious extremist activity—these attacks are both frequent and effective. “Restoring pages that have been removed by Facebook due to these inaccurate reports is a lengthy and cumbersome process, causing many group administrators to abandon Facebook as a communication medium,” he writes. The same is true for individuals, who can lose their content or face a lengthy process to restore their access and information.
NOT ANONYMOUS = NOT SAFE
Whether or not Facebook fixes their reporting tool, its current policy on the use of pseudonyms has already put the lives of religious dissidents at great risk. Congressman Huffman highlights a mass text from the Pakistani government in 2017, which encouraged the public to report any blasphemy they see on social media. Without the ability to use the service under a pseudonym, many activists communicating on Facebook were in immediate danger. Similarly, group administrators faced even greater pressure as gatekeepers—admitting the wrong person to their online community would compromise the identities and safety of everyone involved.
SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS MUST IMPROVE
The Congressman encouraged Facebook to improve, noting that these challenges “are not insurmountable.” His letter specifically requests background on a number of items, including how the company prevents abuse, reviews content that is “flagged,” and plans to protect the identities of vulnerable individuals.
As co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was founded in 2018 to foster “science and reason-based solutions” and “defend the secular character of our government,” Huffman has been a fierce advocate on behalf of nonreligious Americans under attack on Facebook and has a growing list of allies joining his cause. In fact, this Rep. Raskin sponsored and gained bipartisan support for H. Res 512, which calls for the global repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws.
According to PRRI, more than 22% of Americans self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular, and both PRRI and Pew Research surveys show that more than a quarter of the nation’s adults are religiously unaffiliated.
Though they represent the nation’s youngest and fastest growing major religious demographic, nonbelievers in America continue to face persecution both on social media and offline. Congressman Huffman’s outreach represents a first-of-its-kind effort from government officials, echoing a charge from EXMNA to Facebook in 2017 that social media platforms must better protect the secular community.
Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit which advocates for acceptance of religious dissent, promotes secular values, and aims to reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam. In service of this mission, EXMNA operates underground support communities for ex-Muslims throughout the United States and Canada. In addition to community organizing, EXMNA raises awareness of ex-Muslim issues by coalition-building and grassroots campaigns. More recently, EXMNA has highlighted ex-Muslim voices by producing ex-Muslim panel events, conferences, and mini-documentaries. Learn more about Ex-Muslims of North America at ExMuslims.Org.