Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Facebook Group Threatened With Closure for Reporting Police Violence

Now if you've been on social media recently, you can't have missed the shocking image of a woman being dragged by multiple police officers with her trousers pulled down and her shirt pulled up. The image itself is not explicit and the only exposed body parts are the woman's legs and stomach. But the image shows enough to illustrate the appalling and unacceptable behaviour of the police at the Manchester Kill the Bill protest.

The image has been widely shared across social media and even parts of the mainstream media, and with good reason: it's called journalism.

I visited our Facebook group Council Estate Socialism last night and saw a female group member had shared the image from the Manchester protest (from Reuters) and it was awaiting admin approval. Given the clear public interest in raising awareness about state violence against a woman, and the fact the image itself was not explicit, I felt comfortable approving the post. In fact, I felt we had a duty to do so, even if it made some people feel uncomfortable.

Lo and behold, I checked Facebook this morning to discover we had received a Warning because we have broken Facebook's rules on sexual exploitation by approving the post. I checked our newsfeed and the post had indeed been removed and we were offered no way to appeal the decision. I was told that any future rule breaches from the admins could result in group closure, and given we have spent over a year building a community of 7,500 passionate activists, that would be a tragedy.

The Facebook user informed me she received a 24 hour suspension and a similar warning.

Let's just unpack this.

  • The police, according to Facebook, are guilty of sexual exploitation, but the police themselves are likely to face no legal consequences. 
  • There is a huge public interest in sharing the image, as it would be difficult to demonstrate the appalling behaviour of the police without showing the evidence.
  • We shared the evidence to highlight state violence and the lack of accountability in our system. That's as strong a public interest defence as I can think of.
  • Facebook's response was to censor us and threaten our group with closure if we dared do journalism again.
  • We were facing potentially stronger consequences than the police for accurately reporting their behaviour.

Just think about that. 

The next time the state behaves appallingly and we have the evidence, we have no way of knowing if we're allowed to share it on Facebook. If the mainstream media does not hold the authorities to account and the courts do not hold the authorities to account, then literally no one is holding the authorities to account. The crime becomes invisible and the police simply get away with their wrongdoing. This puts public safety at risk.

If we do take a chance and share any future image of state violence, then our Facebook community can be closed down, meaning we lose our power to raise public awareness. This is shocking overreach on Facebook's part and demonstrates the risk of putting our freedom of speech in the hands of a private company. We were not in any way behaving badly, and to the contrary, we were taking necessary and responsible steps to protect the public, but still we got censored.

Social media is the only mechanism that ordinary people have to share our voices with the world and it would seem some want to take that away from us.

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