Opinion

Jack Shafer

Facebook and the outer limits of free speech

Jack Shafer
May 30, 2013 01:11 UTC

The great thing about the Web is that it has given the opportunity to billions of people, who would otherwise never have had a chance to publish, to express their most urgent thoughts with an Internet connection and a few finger-flicks. It’s also the Web’s downside, as you know if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter a triple-Lutz revolting page during a Google search.

But thanks to the First Amendment, there are few U.S. laws banning expression on the Web outside of posting child pornography, specific physical threats, libel or copyright infringement. So there are few ways to eliminate hostile, ugly, vile, racist, sexist or bigoted speech from its many, many pages.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no recourse should you find content on the Web you disapprove of, as we learned this month when Facebook surrendered to a protest and boycott led by two groups, Women, Action, and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, and activist Soraya Chemaly. They opposed depictions of rape and violence posted by Facebook users and demanded, among other things, the removal of such “gender-based hate speech” from its pages. They also sought better policing by Facebook moderators to block future user-posted content that “trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women.”

To illustrate its objections, Women, Action, and the Media posted screen-grab examples of gender-based hate speech from Facebook members’ pages. Some of the images juxtapose photos of women in degrading or helpless positions with messages promising rape. “Slipped the Bitch a Roofie—Bitches Love Roofies,” reads the copy over one unconscious young woman in her undergarments.

Others make jokes of women bleeding from the face or black-and-blue from a beating. “She Broke My Heart. I Broke Her Nose,” reads another.

Instagrammatical man

Jack Shafer
Apr 9, 2012 23:55 UTC

Today, Facebook purchased Instagram – maker of the wildly popular iPhone and Android photo-sharing app of the same name – for $1 billion. That’s a lot of money for a company that’s less than two years old and has no real revenues. But viewed historically the deal is a smart one. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is onto something. The human desire for self-expression – to say something as simple as “I’m here” – is insatiable, and Instagram exploits it superbly.

Sometimes the simpler the message, the more urgent the need to share it. Example: The first thing most people do upon landing at an airport and being told by the captain they can now use their mobile phones is to whip it out and tell someone – anyone! – where they are and where they’re going.

In buying Instagram, Zuckerberg acknowledges that his company’s own mobile app is an inconvenient, ineffective way to say “I’m here.” Using Instagram to transmit pictures of San Francisco, shots of the ballpark or plates full of food to other smartphones lets users convey their here-ness in greater detail and precision than the overcooked stew that the Facebook platform allows. And there is no learning curve: All you need to make an Instagrammatic statement is 1) a mobile device with a camera, 2) an itchy trigger finger and 3) an Instagram account.

Chris Hughes friends the New Republic

Jack Shafer
Mar 9, 2012 23:43 UTC

Chris Hughes joins the pantheon of vanity press moguls with the announcement today of his purchase of a majority interest in the New Republic. The 28-year-old Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, commands a net worth that Forbes put “in the $700 million range” last year. Based on this portfolio, Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine’s annual losses — which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death.

Of course, vanity press moguls rarely commit to their publications for life, and few sustain the relationship after death. Learning nothing from the vanity moguls who have gone before them, they recycle all of their errors. As their publisher’s promises to cut deficits and turn a small profit go unmet; as the editor he inherited from the previous regime turns out to be a dolt; as the staff gets caught giggling about the stupid things the vanity mogul said in story meetings; as the mag ends up making the vanity mogul enemies instead of the new, powerful friends he wished for, he begins to understand that publishing isn’t the creative paradise he sought.

Despite the heartache of owning marginal publications, millionaire after billionaire has lined up in the last generation to buy in or launch a publication of his own. The vanity moguls’ contemporary ranks include Mortimer Zuckerman (the Atlantic, Fast Company, the Daily News), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Harvey Weinstein (Talk), Martin Peretz (New Republic), Arthur L. Carter (The Nation, New York Observer), Jared Kushner (New York Observer), John Warnock and William Hambrecht (Salon), convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Washington Times, Insight, World & I, UPI), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), David Bradley (National Journal, the Atlantic), Warren Hellman (Bay Citizen), and Bill Gates (Slate). But they’ve been with us since the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst used his family fortune to spread his newspaper ego across the nation.

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