The Blog

Facebook, Feudalism, and Civil Rights for Memes?


This week, a worldwide, several-day protest was begun against a hated power whose unaccountable and undemocratic use of arbitrary laws to stamp out dissent has made barely a ripple amongst those not affected by it. Yet barely a peep was heard from the MSM. This was the decision by many of Facebook's meme pages to embark upon a collective protest, marked by the adoption of a profile picture overlay in the form of a pink, inverted Facebook logo, against Facebook's community standards policy.

The dissenters' gripe is with Facebook's habit of closing down pages without notice and without informing of them of the reason for the decision, a process that has come to be called 'Zuccing'. A post on the page 'Kevin 3: In case of a Zuckmergency, break glass' (don't ask) laid out the general form of the complaints on Friday: Firstly, "Facebook claims that content has been reviewed when it clearly isn't. Graphic gore and racial hate speech routinely remains after being reported, which any reasonable reviewer would catch"; secondly, "verified pages appear to operate under a different set of standards, contrary to the claims made by Facebook"; and thirdly, "Facebook's statements are fraudulent and meant to pacify consumers".

This article is not about the content of the protest, which does nonetheless raise interesting questions about the increasing appropriation of free speech language by the right-wing ideology that largely dominates memes, and about the left's proportional abandonment of unconditional free speech. It will not dwell on the content because the protest is, frankly, entirely futile. While some pages have taken the issue very seriously and even started making complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, it was evident from the start that memes' overwhelming tendency towards irony would be in tension with a serious programme, and predictably enough some of the more nihilistic pages have started to subvert the protest with faux messages of solidarity with Facebook. The most established meme pages, meanwhile, which tend to have a broader appeal - such as God Save Our Gracious Meme and, disappointingly given its subject matter, Sassy Socialist Memes - have had no truck with the protest, which has marginalised it to the most devoted memers.

The most important aspect of this protest is rather that it has exposed a fundamental ambiguity in the position of big social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. On one level, they are simply companies offering people a service. However, the nature of that service is a unique one: essentially, it is an extension of people's lives, in particular their social lives, into a virtual space. The conventional view runs that society is formed of the relationships between people. If this is true, then Facebook is not merely a company, but also an extension of society.

The ambiguity enters here. Facebook behaves like a company offering a service: it unilaterally makes the rules by which users must abide, and in exchange, they can use what it offers. Yet the activities in which people engage on Facebook, which revolve around their social lives, are customarily regulated by society rather than by one private individual within it. The result can only be conflict: in this case, in the form of meme pages protesting against a censorship which they feel is at odds with their conceptualisation of society, and against the arbitrariness of its imposition, which are particular to an opaque and unaccountable private body with more regulatory power proportional to the activities within its domain than a government has.

In fact, the most obvious historical parallel with the memers angrily complaining to the FTC is the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. Facebook takes the place of the feudal lords who believe that they still have the right to impose arbitrary rules in their domain, within the limits of central authority. The peasants/memers respond by appealing to the higher authority, the central government, to give them their rights. Facebook is today's localised noble, regarding the society that its users form as (in the terminology of Jürgen Habermas) an essentially private space, subject only to its own will. The rebellious protesters, by contrast, implicitly believe it to be a public space, in which they can interact with others without arbitrary interference.

The question must be, then, can Facebook retain private control of the social space that it has built? This might seem a melodramatic question to ask in response to a muted protest by a handful of meme pages. However, the contradiction between the site's private ownership and its social function are real and causing problems for other platforms: witness Twitter forming an advisory board of users to discuss methods of limiting online abuse. Right-wing technophiles, noting that many of the board's members are feminists and other targets of their own abuse, reacted with consternation and clichés, but if they wish to prevent the rule changes from being unfavourable to them then they will have to demand their own place in the rule-making process. It is possible to see this fledgling user representation developing into a kind of virtual democracy, in which users of the platform would decide collectively how its social relations should be regulated. The same could happen to Facebook.

However, if the great social media sites were to be democratised, it would require that they cease to treat their own servers as private property and reconfigure them as public spaces in which control is wielded by the majority, rather than by a few unaccountable regulators. It would be truly remarkable if an obscure protest by a handful of amateur quasi-cartoonists could be the harbinger of such a seismic shift in social media and in property relations.

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