January 2, 2020
A joint release of the Center for Inquiry, the Secular Coalition for America, and Ex-Muslims of North America.
Facebook faced accusations this morning of enabling censorship on their platform through a letter from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), co-signed by Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Susan Wild (D-PA), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ).
Huffman, a co-chair and founding member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, called out Facebook tools and policies that extremist groups commonly exploit in order to silence nonbelievers and religious dissenters. He urged Facebook to shed light on their internal policies and offer plans to better protect people in the future.
“In a free and just society, every person must be able to join, change, or leave religious beliefs and communities without fear of retribution,” said Huffman in his letter as he called for the organization to take a hard look at its current policies. “Facebook can help prevent harassment, persecution, and violence from gaining any traction on its platform.”
Read Congressman Huffman’s letter to Facebook here: http://bit.ly/2YmVP54
FACEBOOK A CRITICAL SAFE HAVEN
Huffman’s letter focuses on individuals who have left their religion and are often subject to “shame, ostracization, and even violence” from their family members and former religious peers. Along with atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other secular communities, they use private Facebook pages and groups as a space to communicate without risking harm to their relationships, reputations, and safety.
“In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees… freedom of and from religion for every individual,” said Huffman, reinforcing that Facebook should uphold American values at home and abroad. “In many religious communities around the world, ‘apostasy,’ the act of leaving one’s religion, and lack of belief in a deity are considered to be capital offenses.”
For individuals abroad as well as many here in the United States, organizing online with like-minded peers offers the only real chance to safely build a community. But as Huffman heard firsthand from Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), a nonprofit that works to support individuals who leave Islam, losing that safe space on Facebook has become a common problem that the company has failed to address.
EXTREMISTS ARE ABUSING FACEBOOK TOOLS
Organized religious extremists are coordinating to co-opt Facebook’s abuse reporting system, which lets users “flag” content like “hate speech,” bullying and harassment, and obscenity for review. In doing so, they manipulate Facebook into denying vulnerable ex-religious and nonreligious individuals access to support groups, instead forcing them either into the public square or the closet.
“Ex-Muslim atheists can come together online despite the shocking levels of intolerance we face in our day-to-day lives. If we cannot organize safely on social media platforms, we lose our most valuable safe haven.” said Muhammad Syed, President of Ex-Muslims of North America.
As Congressman Huffman makes clear in his letter—including through a number of images capturing religious extremist activity—these attacks are both frequent and effective. “Restoring pages that have been removed by Facebook due to these inaccurate reports is a lengthy and cumbersome process, causing many group administrators to abandon Facebook as a communication medium,” he writes. The same is true for individuals, who can lose their content or face a lengthy process to restore their access and information.
“Big Tech should empower users with options to protect themselves from “objectionable” content. Instead, Facebook has assumed the role of Big Brother and continues to remove lawful speech,” said Congressman Gosar. Big Tech should embrace free speech principles, and offer more content filter options that would allow individuals to protect themselves from content they consider to be hateful, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.”
NOT ANONYMOUS = NOT SAFE
Whether or not Facebook fixes their reporting tool, its current policy on the use of pseudonyms has already put the lives of religious dissidents at great risk. Congressman Huffman highlights a mass text from the Pakistani government in 2017, which encouraged the public to report any blasphemy they see on social media. Without the ability to use the service under a pseudonym, many activists communicating on Facebook were in immediate danger. Similarly, group administrators faced even greater pressure as gatekeepers—admitting the wrong person to their online community would compromise the identities and safety of everyone involved.
“Mark Zuckerberg responds to almost all criticism or scrutiny of Facebook by declaring the company’s dedication to free speech. So where is this passionate commitment to free expression when oppressive governments and religious extremists game Facebook’s rules to silence and endanger atheists and other dissidents?” said Jason Lemieux, Director of Government Affairs for the Center for Inquiry, which runs Secular Rescue, a program that helps threatened secularist writers and activists escape to safety.
“If Facebook truly cares about protecting free speech rights, it should start by making clear that it won’t play along with those regimes and extremists who threaten its most vulnerable users,” said Lemieux.
SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS MUST IMPROVE
The Congressman encouraged Facebook to improve, noting that these challenges “are not insurmountable.” His letter specifically requests background on a number of items, including how the company prevents abuse, reviews content that is “flagged,” and plans to protect the identities of vulnerable individuals.
As co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was founded in 2018 to foster “science and reason-based solutions” and “defend the secular character of our government,” Huffman has been a fierce advocate on behalf of nonreligious Americans under attack on Facebook and has a growing list of allies joining his cause. In fact, this Rep. Raskin sponsored and gained bipartisan support for H. Res 512, which calls for the global repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws.
“This is a critical moment for our nation as Facebook considers how best to moderate content on its platform. Without this letter and bipartisan support from Congressional leaders, the secular community could have been left out of the process and forced to continue facing online abuse,” said Sarah Levin, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). “As they work to improve their platform and policies, we also expect Facebook to take this opportunity to protect free expression, including blasphemy, as the strongest way to guarantee the religious freedom all Americans hold dear.”
According to PRRI, more than 22% of Americans self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular, and both PRRI and Pew Research surveys show that more than a quarter of the nation’s adults are religiously unaffiliated.
“There are nearly 60 million Americans in the secular community, and we are proud to stand together in support of our Ex-Muslim brothers and sisters as well as every nonbeliever, religious minority, and dissident overseas who faces persecution,” continued Levin. “The secular community’s greatest strength, which led to this letter, is partnership. SCA’s Coalition of 19 organizations—including EXMNA and CFI—which brings atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nonbelievers together, continues to show that strength in numbers can yield a better future for secular Americans.”
Though they represent the nation’s youngest and fastest growing major religious demographic, nonbelievers in America continue to face persecution both on social media and offline. Congressman Huffman’s outreach represents a first-of-its-kind effort from government officials, echoing a charge from EXMNA to Facebook in 2017 that social media platforms must better protect the secular community.