Unintended Consequences

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been watching an interesting development in the Swedish social media space. It is the move from Facebook, that some in Sweden perceive as an environment where free and open discussion is not possible, to the Russian version of Facebook called VK where they can freely speak their minds without fear of censorship and retribution!  While Facebook’s censorship policies and their implementations are not the fundamental cause, they might very well have triggered a tipping point in behavior.  Unintended consequences.  Let me explain.

On June 28, 2017 Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger published an article on ProPublica titled “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men from Hate Speech but Not Black Children.”  They say: “The company recently pledged to nearly double its army of censors to 7,500, up from 4,500, in response to criticism of a video posting of a murder. Their work amounts to what may well be the most far-reaching global censorship operation in history. It is also the least accountable: Facebook does not publish the rules it uses to determine what content to allow and what to delete.  Users whose posts are removed are not usually told what rule they have broken, and they cannot generally appeal Facebook’s decision. Appeals are currently only available to people whose profile, group or page is removed.”  They go on to provide numerous examples from around the world.

This lack of transparency frequently leads to frustration among those who have their Facebook accounts temporarily suspended or shut down.  They quote Monica Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook: “The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes … That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share … I’ll be the first to say that we’re not perfect every time.”

Allow me to provide some context for the situation in Sweden.  The massive influx of Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to Sweden in recent years has become, as in many countries in Europe, an increasingly divisive issue. This is reflected in the continued growth of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats (SD) political party.  For example, in the 2014 election, SD polled at 12.9% of the vote and won 14% of the seats in the Parliament (making them the third largest party).  Recent polls show them at 18 – 24% of the vote making them currently either second largest or largest party.

The situation is also highlighted by the rise in complaints being filed against those who post “hate speech” on social media platforms like Facebook.  Many of these complaints result in prosecution and conviction under Swedish law that makes hate speech against ethnic groups a crime. For example, this past August, a 70-year old man wrote on a (now closed down) Facebook group page that “Young Muslims are apes” and “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.”  The prosecutor on the case wrote that the man was guilty of “writing derogatory comments aimed at a religious group.”  The man was found guilty accordingly and fined $1500.  He could have received a sentence of up to two years in prison.  An unintended consequence of these actions is to drive increasing numbers of voters towards SD rather away from it.

Against this background that has been building over the last years and for which Facebook cannot be held responsible, Facebook has recently become very active in suspending and shutting down accounts because of claims of inappropriate postings.  However, these actions are often perceived by users as arbitrary and unfair.  Facebook’s lack of transparency and responsiveness to complaints is adding to the frustration.  A consequence of this is that people have started to move their discussions over to VK where they feel freer to have an open and honest discussion about problems that they see and feel that the government and mainstream media are trying to suppress.  While there are certainly many people making extreme racist comments on Facebook, there are also many who want to have an honest discussion about the problems of the day.  Unfortunately, Facebook seems to do a poor job of discriminating among these two groups.

On October 4, Katerina Janouch, a controversial Swedish social commentator and author who has been very active on Facebook and has an online magazine called Katerina Magasin, announced that she is fed up with having her account on Facebook suspended or shut down because of what she believes to be unfair and opaque Facebook censorship policies and is moving her activity to VK.  She encouraged all of her followers and all those who believe in free speech to join her.  Here is a summary in her own words (my translation – in full disclosure, I lived in Stockholm for 17 years, my wife is Swedish and I speak Swedish reasonably well):

“Have you been shut out of Facebook as I have?  Paradoxically enough, the Russian counterpart of Facebook, www.vk.com, is a freer social forum.  VK stands for “V Kontakte” which means “In Contact”.  Today VK has 400 million users and works roughly the same way as Facebook.  I have opened an account there and have observed a steady stream of Swedish users.  You are welcome too.  The Russian platform might be able to offer you a freer climate for conversation than its older American sibling.  Traditionally, the US has stood for freedom of speech while Russia is known for just the opposite.  But we live in times where things are upside down.  Defending free speech is the most important battle of our times.”

Since Ms. Janouch posted this call to help defend free speech by moving to VK, I have noticed new groups of Swedes forming there.  One of these groups is called “Those Who Have Had Enough of Facebook Censorship” with, as of this writing, about 260 members.  Another group I have seen is “Swedes on VK” that has about 450 members.  Two weeks ago, there did not seem to be many Swedes to talk to on VK.  Now there are many, the conversations pretty lively and, I must admit, livelier than the conversations by those same people on Facebook just two weeks ago.  While these do not seem like large numbers they appear to be growing rapidly.

Whether or not this activity represents a real trend remains to be seen.  It is still very fresh.  But it is certainly something worth tracking.  It would be a mistake to simply write this off as being just a few cranks.  That is what the mainstream political parties and media in Sweden did about SD and tried to pretend they did not exist.  So far, that approach has not turned out well.  It would be interesting to know if a similar phenomenon is being observed in other countries in Europe.

In the meantime, on Facebook there is a group called “Stand Up for Katerina Janouch” and is described as a group where you can express your sympathies with Ms. Janouch and have a calm and polite discussion about social and political problems of the day while trying to avoid the Facebook censors.  And while the discussion is more subdued than on VK, it does have fourteen and half thousand members so she does have support in the Swedish community.  Personally, I find her writing to be thought provoking.  It certainly does not deserve to be censored by Facebook or anybody else.  To quote the historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Words to live by.

Each revolution in communications technology has resulted in qualitative changes in the way we interact with each other.  In each case it is more than simply scaling up the speed and reach of our interactions.  There are real changes in the dynamics of human interaction that result in new patterns of behavior.  The change in scale of connectivity, speed and reach of communication resulting from social media and the Internet is an ongoing revolution.  Today, the rate of change of the technology is making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for our understanding to keep up with developments.  At this rate, it is very easy to make errors in judgment about how to manage the technology without falling victim to unintended consequences.  We must be constantly on the lookout for such consequences, catch them as early as possible and take appropriate action.  Censorship on massive social media platforms like Facebook is an excellent and timely case in point.

It is hard to say if genuine concern for the public welfare is motivating Facebook to hastily create and implement potentially harmful censorship policies. It could be that they are simply trying to avoid regulation like the recent Network laws passed in Germany that would result in serious fines if hate speech and offensive material is not removed by providers like Facebook in short order.  The European Union is threatening such European wide regulation and I would not be surprised to hear similar suggestions here in the US.  If as a result of Facebook censorship, the move to VK in Sweden evolves into a real trend, you might ask if it really matters?  Well, it just might.  For example, it is clear that the Swedish government is concerned about potential Russian interference in next year’s elections.  The move of a significant number of SD supporters to VK presents potential opportunities for the Russians to amplify divisions in Swedish society that are already expanding.  And at the very least, it would offer the Russians a wonderful propaganda victory: “Look at how those living in a so called free and democratic Western society are forced to take refuge on a Russian platform to find freedom of speech!!”  Yes, unintended consequences.