Since the 2016 election Facebook has faced several problems, some related to the election, some not. In 2016 Russian agents bought ads on Facebook and posted messages related to the election. Facebook has been blamed for not preventing the Russians from doing this. Many people may believe the Russian efforts led to Donald Trump’s election. That view remains unproven and highly implausible.
Beset by other problems, Facebook seeks to avoid a replay of 2016 after the 2018 elections. Yesterday Facebook tried to take the offensive by removing 32 false pages and profiles from its platform; the pages had 16,000 to 18,000 followers, all connected to an upcoming event “No Unite the Right 2 – DC”.
Facebook stated the pages engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior [which] is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing.” Facebook does not allow anonymity on its platform at least in the United States. They appear to be enforcing their community standards.
Most people might not worry too much about what Facebook did. The speech at issue was said to be divisive disinformation supported by a traditional adversary of the United States. Who worries about the speech of hostile foreigners? Still a reasonable person might be concerned for other reasons.
The source of the Facebook pages, not the company’s policies, seemed of most interest in Washington. Sen. Mark Warner said that “the Kremlin” had exploited Facebook “to sow division and spread disinformation.” Warner’s confidence seems unwarranted. The Washington Post reported that Facebook “couldn’t tie the activity to Russia.” Facebook’s chief security officer called the Russian link “interesting but not determinant.” The company did say “the profiles shared a pattern of behavior with the  Russian disinformation campaign.”
The takedown also affected some Americans. Ars Technica said the event on the removed page “attracted a lot of organic support, including the recruitment of legitimate Page admins to join and advertise the effort.” Perhaps Russian operatives have no protections for their speech. But the Americans affected by the takedown do or at least would have had such protections if the government had ordered Facebook to take down the page in question.
But the source of the speech was not the only problem. As noted earlier, Sen. Warner thought two kinds of speech deserved suppression: divisive speech and disinformation. But, as a member of Congress, he cannot act on that belief. Courts almost always prevent public officials from discriminating against speech based on its content. For example, the First Amendment protects “abusive invective” related to “race, color, creed, religion or gender.” The Supreme Court has also said false statements are not an exception to the First Amendment.
In contrast, Facebook can remove speech from their private forum. The First Amendment does not govern their actions. But Facebook’s freedom in this regard might one day threaten everyone else’s.
Here’s how. Facebook might have removed the page for purely business reasons. Or they have acted more or less as agents of the federal government. The New York Times reported that Sen. Warner “has exerted intense pressure on the social media companies.” His colleague Sen. Diane Feinstein told social media companies last year “You’ve created these platforms, and now they are being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.” Free speech would fare poorly if social media were both free of constitutional constraints and effectively under the thumb of public officials.
Facebook officials may see business reasons to resist Russian efforts on their platform, a goal served by enforcing existing rules. At the same time Facebook wishes to be seen by Congress as responsive to congressional bullying. But being too responsive would only encourage more threats later, and in general, giving elected officials even partial control over your business is not a good idea. So Facebook is both careful about Russian influence and responsive to congressional concerns, a good citizen rather than an enthusiastic conscript in defense of the nation.
Facebook’s efforts may yet keep Congress at a safe distance. But members of Congress may be learning they can get they want from the tech companies. In the future federal officials free of constitutional constraints may indirectly but effectively decide the meaning of “divisive speech” and “disinformation” on Facebook and elsewhere. Their definitions would be unlikely to affect only the speech of America’s adversaries.