In the face of Russian attempts to sow discord, Facebook has attempted to take on the mantle of benevolent dictator. The social media giant has issued bans and threats for small reasons and occasionally memory-holed other content for ostensibly bigger ones. Never mind that those actions all seem to move in one direction — Facebook is just looking out for you.
On May 24, Facebook expanded its dedication to providing content as it sees fit to “boosted” and “promoted” posts, that is, posts made on an official page which the owner pays to promote in an attempt to reach a wider audience. It’s under this policy that the movie “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” found itself being censored by the tech behemoth.
The makers of the film say Facebook is refusing to allow them to promote their film. Facebook says their problems are due to not being a verified page.
“Gosnell,” the story of infamous abortionist Kermit Gosnell, opens Oct. 12. Its producer, Phelim McAleer, naturally wants to publicize the film as much as possible. He told me why he made the film:
We are journalists and film makers and this is an incredible story. I’ve spent 25 years as an investigative journalist and this is one of the biggest stories I’ve ever worked on and it went largely unreported. This is a true story that was not reported on by the mainstream media in a meaningful way. There are real victims here whose story deserves to be told and we’ve set out to shine a light on the crimes of Gosnell and how the government allowed him to operate for 17 years without protecting women and children, which is what journalism is supposed to do. We want to tell the truth because it is extremely important that people have the facts before they make a decision‒especially with so many partisan journalists believing they are part of a political movement‒not reporting the facts as they are supposed to do.
Even making the film was an uphill battle. McAleer noted the difficulties in getting it from concept to the screen. “The Silicon establishment do not want this story told,” he said. “Kickstarter refused to let us crowdfund to fund the film and NPR have just rejected us from advertising the movie on the taxpayer funded station. Now Facebook is trying to censor the movie by preventing its creators from advertising on Facebook. They really, really don’t want this story told.”
As abortion is a political issue, and one that divides partisans more starkly than almost any other issue in modern America, Facebook found the posts to be in violation of its standards limiting political expression and wouldn’t approve the promotions. Granted, this story shouldn’t be a political issue other than guaranteeing women and children never again suffer at the hands of such a monster, but apparently it’s better to focus on the word “abortion” than on the story.
Censorship Cuts Both Ways
While it may seem to be an attempt to merely silence conservative voices, the social media company doesn’t limit its censorship to one side. In fact, Facebook can cast a fairly wide net, which has ensnared outlets from the Washington Examiner to Vice News. Ostensibly, any organization, regardless of political leanings, can undergo a verification process to avoid the censorship, but it’s a solution in search of a problem. FiveThirtyEight, in a post releasing an archive of Russian tweets, noted that the Russian tweets actually increased after the 2016 election. The post also quoted a researcher from Clemson who studied the tweets saying, “They are trying to divide our country.”
Thus it’s obvious that Facebook’s only form of recourse against propaganda designed to foment discord is to simply label everything except verified accounts as propaganda and unite us in a fight about that. What else are the tech overlords supposed to do, allow us to think for ourselves? (No one tell them there’s a whole internet out there, one with supporting facts and data and doctored images for anything anyone believes and then some.)
As to what happens when Facebook refuses to allow pages to promote their posts, it tends to bury them, even for those who follow the page. In McAlee’s words, “A limited number of people can see it within their feed but you cannot promote it to a wider audience. Many technical blogs who study Facebook reach report this means as little as 2 percent of your audience sees the post if it is not boosted.”
Thus, in the spirit of bonhomie and definitely not an attempt by Facebook to salvage its reputation and keep the cash flowing, “Gosnell” found itself targeted for being “political.” Never mind that Gosnell’s horrific crimes have been documented by both sides or that it’s an actual movie with a release date and not an unsourced disinformation campaign. Facebook pulled the plug on a number of posts designed to promote the movie. A few of the 14 examples sent to The Federalist, ones which do not show as “promoted” on the film’s page at this point, can be seen below.
Are some of the posts mere publicity while others carry a more overt political message? Yes, but politics are central to a number of films, “Gosnell” included. Artists have sought to change minds for much longer than Facebook has existed and will continue to do so long after people abandon the network in favor of whatever comes next.
Facebook Leaves You Alone Because You’re the Product
Though it does ban individual users, Facebook tends to focus on those who pay for its services. Facebook isn’t a guardian of the republic, it’s a business that sells our information to marketers so they can try to sell us stuff. Since individuals don’t pay, they’re a lesser target.
As such, the new policies about promoted posts hurt smaller and independent artists and firms more than they hurt the established players, especially since Facebook’s mainly a marketing channel that selectively erects roadblocks. This is true whether talking “Gosnell” or the book “Trump/Russia,” which also had its promotions pulled. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America continue to advertise with impunity, though, so “politics” seems to be more of a cudgel against independent voices and opinions that run contrary to Facebook’s mores than an actual operating position.
Regardless of Facebook’s actions, “Gosnell” will have its debut. Currently, it’s slated to play in at least one theater in 45 states around the country. Those screenings are fact, not fake news, and definitely not a ploy by Russia. The filmmakers, though, are unable to promote the film, even to audiences in those states, because the content is “political.”
As McAleer stated:
Facebook is censoring this story and destroying our attempts to get the news about this film out to the public. Facebook is essentially silencing these children and women whom Gosnell murdered. This is content journalists should be covering but Facebook is putting their thumb on the scale because they do not like the content. Audiences want to see this content and we’re willing to pay for the advertising but again they are demonstrating their bias against a true crime story. As independent filmmakers, we have a limited budget and Facebook was a mainstay of our outreach efforts.
Building the Right Kind of Community
If Facebook believes in its mission statement, then it’s failing miserably. Here’s that statement: “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”
Not that Facebook gets that specific when rejecting a post. They keep it vague. McAleer was never told why his posts were rejected. He said:
They simply state it’s not been approved and to check their standards, but it does not give you a specific reason why this post could be not be promoted at all to a wider audience. It’s clear it is the pro-life audience that they don’t want to encourage or provide content to. They really hate anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the liberal world view. They hate diversity of thought.
It’s hard to discover what’s going on in the world and to share and express what matters to users when Facebook is preemptively deciding which of those occurrences and opinions are copacetic, which thoughts are allowable and which aren’t, which movies can advertise and which cannot. Some might even say that there’s a word for that, though in 2018, it’s not a popular one to reference, especially when the fate of the republic supposedly rests with our tech overlords and not the citizenry, at least those citizens fortunate enough to be born.