Social Media and Human Rights – a Contradiction in Itself?

The American online social media company Facebook has been a blessing for human rights – most apparently for freedom of speech. Social media can increase the effectiveness of public assemblies, demonstrations or non-mainstream political movements. However, there exist also dark sides to social media.

Facebook, with more than 2.2 billion active users, has had a bad few weeks – or even years. Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, the co-founder, and leader of Facebook had to apologize for failing to protect the personal data of millions of users. On the strength of this, millions of users deleted their accounts in disgust.

“Facebook’s security is so bad it’s surprising Zuckerberg hasn’t deleted his account”. Rachel Withers

Moreover, Facebook has faced intense pressure over the amount of “fake news” widespread on its platforms. Actually, the greatest limitation of online activism is not that people are lacking offline helping behavior, what is known as slacktivism (Lane & Dal Cin, 2018), but the potential spread of misinformation. Lievrouw (2011) claims that new media is offering a great opportunity for social movements, communication, and expression, notably for activists. But the other side of the coin is that people can create and share in an uncontrollable manner. This, in turn, can result in the spread of information that might not be fact-checked and is misleading the public.

Probably the most well-known incident is the arranged Russian propaganda effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election. Ads spread polarising views on topics such as gay rights, race or immigration is according to Mark Zuckerberg a “pretty crazy idea”. The point is that advertising is manipulative. But can all advertising be labeled as a violation of human rights? Is it not just a pervasive political tactic to spend money to further boost an electoral message? One could argue that the exceptional precision and scale of reach is not compatible with human and democratic rights because its manipulative political effects could undermine democratic choices.

Similarly, just last week Facebook was accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages were purged. Less than one month before the midterm elections in America, Facebook has announced, it has removed a series of popular left-wing media accounts for constantly breaking its rules against “spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior”. Fake or multiple accounts with the same names were used and they published vast amounts of content across a network of pages and groups. They were also linked to so-called “ad farms”, which mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debates. As a result, the company announced it would remove additional inauthentic activity and to expand their policies.

Edward Lynn is an editor-in-chief at Reverb Press and he realized with surprise that his page had been deleted. He hotly disputed:

“We are a legitimate news publisher. We are not fake news. We are not misinformation. We are not foreign. We are simply a small independent news publication trying to grow.”

Paid advertising may respect human rights, but fake news rigs and distort the democratic debate. Whereas the former may influence millions of voters by precisely targeted Facebook messages, the latter influences millions by false and maliciously messages. UN experts indicate in a declaration on fake news that fake news interferes with the right to receive and seek information – part of the general right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Yet it is a difficult task to deal with fake news. Should social media companies, such as Facebook, just suppress them? However, suppression of fake news is synchronously suppression of free speech which is a human right in itself.

These controversies show the challenges Facebook and other social media platforms face when attempting to control the content their users freely provide. Facebook removes 1 million accounts every day. By the end of 2018 their goal is to have 20,000 employees concentrating on security- and safety-related projects. That is all very well, but Facebook’s actions – or inactions – enabled violations of privacy and human rights associated with democratic issues. Is it possible that its business model is simply not compatible with human rights?


Reference list:

Lane, D. S., & Dal Cin, S. (2018). Sharing beyond Slacktivism: the effect of socially observable prosocial media sharing on subsequent offline helping behavior. Information, Communication & Society, 21(11), 1–18.

Lievrouw, L. A. (2011). Alternative and activist new media. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

One thought on “Social Media and Human Rights – a Contradiction in Itself?”

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this blog. It brought together a number of rather disturbing developments that I (as a Facebook user myself) am interested in. Though I was aware of some of the issues that you mention, it also gave me a lot of new insights. It is really shocking to read that 1 million accounts are deleted EACH DAY! That really shows the scale of it. I also liked the way you use the quotes to support the story and how you visually present them.

    I think there were two more examples that you could have used in this post. The first relates to Facebook policies regarding unethical or harmful content. I recently saw a documentary where a British journalist went undercover as a Facebook employee and raised the question whether Facebook allows discriminating or violating posts on their platform as to increase its popularity and keep the numbers up. The second, and related, example is that some content can be psychologically damaging to people. In the documentary they show a video where a girl is severely beaten up. It is clearly visible that she is injured and unable to defend herself. Her parents have requested for the video to be removed but Facebook did not do this.

    How do you feel about Facebook’s policies in these ‘grey zones’? Are they really grey zones or does facebook have a larger responsibility? And even if they have enough staff (in every language) is it really possible ‘censure’ these amounts of contents?

    You can re-watch the documentary here: It was on Dutch television but it is mainly in English.

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