Can Facebook quell ‘performance crimes?’

By Jessica Klein

Breaking up Facebook is becoming a 2020 presidential campaign issue. The social platform has steadily been losing the public’s trust, with problems ranging from massive data breaches (the most recent exposed 540 million Facebook users’ records) to rampant hate speech.

While President Trump’s team is eyeing an alternative, censorship-free home to his rambling tweets—“free speech” promoting social platform Parler—Democratic presidential candidates tend to think regulation is the cure for Facebook’s many ills. Some, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, have gone so far as to say “giants like Facebook” should be broken up. “More competition will help drive some accountability into their profit models,” she told Buzzfeed News.

Politicians aren’t the only ones calling for a Facebook breakup. Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, penned a New York Times op-ed last month titled, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook.”

“Mark’s influence is staggering,” he wrote. “There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”

Hughes’s point is salient as social platforms like Facebook continue to foster acts of violence and spread misinformation. A 19-year-old opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, California in April after reading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on 8chan. Iranian propaganda accounts keep popping up (and getting taken down) on Facebook. And Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election revealed that multiple U.S. citizens unknowingly helped organize real-life events set in motion by Russian agents on social media.

One of the biggest catalysts for Facebook’s latest reckoning took place in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, when a self-identified white supremacist streamed a live video on the platform as he murdered 51 people at the Al Noor Mosque. Facebook took about 20 minutes to remove the shooter’s harrowing livestream, enough time for it to have been viewed roughly 4,000 times.

Facebook responded by promising it would apply more restrictions to its live video service. Now, those who break Facebook’s content broadcasting rules will be barred temporarily from using the service after their first offense (previously, it took several strikes to incur a temporary ban). Multiple offenses can result in permanent bans.

The social giant also shifted its policy to ban not just “white supremacy” from its platform, but also “white nationalism” and “white separatism.” Various civil rights groups, reported Vice, had successfully argued that “‘white nationalism’ and ‘white separatism’ are often simply fronts for white supremacy.” This month, YouTube updated its policy to reflect Facebook’s.

But are these bans and restrictions enough to quell hate-mongering content on social platforms? White supremacists are already getting around social media bans through methods as simple as changing their usernames. The there’s the challenge of monitoring content on social messaging apps. Last month, Facebook pledged to increase privacy on products like Messenger, WhatsApp, and Stories, which would make it extremely difficult for the company to ban hate speech there.

In the meantime, Facebook and the like still provide platforms for what researchers call “performance crimes.” These crimes are “inspired by the attention” that will result from posting about them on social media. With attention seeking ingrained in social platforms’ models, it’s hard to imagine what they’ll come up with to stop bad actors from using social media as it was designed—as a means for spreading personal messages to wide audiences.

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