Back to Professor's Press Pass

From nipples to Nazis

Updated: January 22, 2021

Before class (15 minutes)

Students and professors should read the Introduction of Facebook’s Community Standards, then read the short overviews of the first six cases the Oversight Board will review.

Class time needed

20-60 minutes

Categories/Tags: Social media, big tech, free speech

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Discuss a private company’s responsibility to minimize harm while also appreciating a human right to free expression.
  • Compare controversial social media posts and defend or denounce their value in the realm of free speech.

Issue overview

Facebook has convened an Oversight Board, a panel of experts who will review posts that the social media giant took down because, it says, they violated its community standards. Facebook users can appeal the take-downs, and the board is reviewing its first six cases now. The board’s decisions will have major implications about what other content might be allowed and what might be taken down in the future.

Screenshot, Facebook

Background

Social media giants like Facebook are increasingly facing scrutiny about the ways they monitor content, from misinformation to hate speech to political advertising. Some think social media companies have a greater legal and ethical responsibility for what is published on their platforms because those messages are generally public.

This has resulted in a constant tension within Facebook and other social media sites to maintain standards that minimize harm while also appreciating a human right to free expression.

While Facebook might want numerous and varied posts on the site to drive engagement among users — which translates to time spent on the site and therefore profits via advertising — those inside the organization also recognize an obligation to minimize harm to individuals and democracy by regulating posts that violate community standards.

Facebook’s governing community standards dictate what users can and cannot post about. In some ways, the rules are exceptionally clear, like, “We do not allow content that sexually exploits or endangers children.” In other instances, the language is more nuanced: “We have higher expectations for content that we call cruel and insensitive, which we define as content that targets victims of serious physical or emotional harm.”

Activity

Read the Introduction of Facebook’s Community Standards, then read the overviews of the first six cases the Oversight Board will review. Find one that interests you. What do the community standards indicate about why it got taken down in the first place? (For example, the fourth case seems to have been flagged for violating nudity standards in Section Three, Part 14: Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity).

Discussion questions

  1. Which case did you pick? Why do you think you were you drawn to that particular issue?
  2. Do you think Facebook should reinstate your selected content or keep it down? Use Facebook’s community standards and your own logic to justify your choice.
  3. Think about a time when you were impacted by community standards online. This could be a time when you: a) had something taken down, b) chose not to publish or post something due to community standards, or c) were unable to see something that had been blocked. In that moment, what did you notice in your own response? How did your engagement in that platform or source change as a result?
  4. Do you think it should be Facebook’s job to police the speech and posts of its users? Why or why not?
  5. Find your university’s social media policy as it pertains to students. What protections are you offered as a student to express yourself freely on social media?
  6. If you’re at a public university, find a local private institution and compare its policy to yours, or vice versa. What differences did you find?
  7. From your role as a journalist on campus, how does this discussion shift your view of the various community standards or policies we’ve discussed in public and private spaces? How might your approach change towards those policies moving forward?

For further reading