Facebook deleting posts promoting anti-lockdown protests if they violate local government orders

A terrible precedent, especially since Facebook admits that it’s letting local government set its policy here. It reeks of what you’d see in a Middle Eastern country when demonstrations break out, where parts of the Internet suddenly go dark to stop organizers from coordinating.

Facebook said Sunday it did not remove the groups or events partly because states have not outlawed the activity. Organizers also have called for “drive-in” protests, in keeping with recommendations that people keep a short distance between each other. In other cases, involving protests planned for states like New Jersey and California, the company has removed that content, Facebook said.

“Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the company.

More specifics:

Facebook’s going to claim that this policy is no different than it is in other cases involving solicitation of illegal activity. You can’t use their platform to try to buy drugs or hire prostitutes so you can’t use it to organize rallies that violate social-distancing orders either. But there’s a difference, of course: The protests aren’t petty crime, they’re a form of civil disobedience. Stephen Moore is an imbecile for comparing the “reopen now!” protesters to Rosa Parks but the analogy is useful in this context. If Facebook’s going to defer to the whims of local government in deciding whether mass civil disobedience should be suppressed then causes that are more just than the anti-lockdown rallies are at risk too. Some government officials would have claimed after the Ferguson riots that protests should be banned temporarily to let people cool off for awhile lest they turn violent. Would Facebook have suppressed posts organizing rallies in that case?

The company would say that there are differences between those protests and the anti-lockdown demonstrations now. For one thing, the constitutional right to assemble during normal times isn’t in doubt; the scope of the right to assemble during a pandemic, when the state is using its police powers to limit infection, is. But in that case, a communications platform like Facebook should err on the side of speech, assuming that the protesters would win in court if they challenged a lockdown order. Facebook might answer that by saying that there’s not just a constitutional difference between traditional civil rights protests and the current protests, there’s a public safety difference. The anti-lockdown protests are inherently and unavoidably dangerous because they involve people congregating while a dangerous disease is spreading. But if that were the company’s concern, they wouldn’t be looking to local government for guidance on whether to delete posts promoting the events. They’d simply have a blanket policy against them, as they’re entitled to have as a private platform.

And that policy would be flimsy. It’s *possible* to have a rally that observes basic good social-distancing practices — everyone in masks, a certain distance apart, and so forth.

This will backfire. It’ll create some sympathy for the protesters by turning them into free-speech martyrs and end up inadvertently promoting the rallies. It’ll also deepen fear and loathing of Facebook specifically and Big Tech generally by righties who already distrust social media platforms for being too cozy with the state. Every primetime show on Fox will have something about this tonight, probably packaged with this equally counterproductive soundbite by Gretchen Whitmer implying that she might extend the lockdown orders in Michigan *because* of the rallies. Whitmer would say that’s because any mass gathering enables the disease to spread and requires further mitigation, but in context it feels like a parent telling a mouthy kid that they’ve just been grounded an extra week for their backtalk. The more the lockdowns seem like punishment instead of an unfortunate but necessary public-health measure, the more resistance to them there’ll be.

The most effective response to the rallies so far has been those nurses walking out into the middle of the street to try to shame protesters while they were idling at red lights. If Facebook wants to discourage people from joining the demonstrations, they’re better off publicizing posts from health-care workers about the extra risk created by the gatherings than by trying to delete calls to organize. It’d work better and it’d be light-years better for the company in terms of PR.

Watch Zuckerberg on ABC this morning. At 2:40 of the clip he’s asked about Facebook deleting posts and says that, although there’s room to debate policy, in a health emergency the standard of what counts as “harmful information” is different. But the rallies aren’t being organized to promote myths about the disease (although I can only imagine what some of the attendees believe about it). They’re being organized to … debate policy, specifically to insist that the stay-at-home orders have outlived their usefulness and should be lifted before more economic damage is done. Exit question: If Facebook is suppressing posts about the rallies because they don’t want to encourage mass gatherings, shouldn’t they suppress *all* posts encouraging mass gatherings? E.g., if someone wants to hold a wedding right now with 100 guests and posts the where-and-when info on Facebook, will Facebook take that down? What about a post by a church announcing that services will be held this weekend as usual, come one, come all?

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