Social media policing has been a hot topic in recent years, thanks in no small part to the revelation that Russian operatives used America’s love affair with online communication to manipulate perceptions leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Americans, it could be argued, are always eager to place the blame on for the public’s activities on organizing bodies; and in the aftermath of the last election, social media giants like Facebook came under intense political pressure to better regulate the activities of those who utilize their websites.
As a result, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all begun cracking down on content that isn’t in keeping with cultural norms regarding decency. New policies aimed at preventing state actors from acting in bad faith to manipulate foreign populations have been enacted to varying degrees of success, and as some of you may have experienced yourselves, some platforms began suspending accounts when they were flagged for posting content that violated their rules regarding what is and isn’t acceptable to post.
We have removed or disabled access to the following content that you have posted on Facebook because we received a notice from a third party that the content infringes or otherwise violates their rights:
However, the way in which accounts are suspended has repeatedly been called into question. Some have accused sites like Facebook of actively silencing conservative voices while leaving liberal-leaning posts alone. Others have reported having their posts lead to immediate suspensions, even when their content was not in any way controversial. One writer associated with NEWSREP had his Facebook account suspended last year over posting an image commemorating the end of World War II that had a visible Swastika on a flag being held up by American soldiers.
Those who feel their accounts have been suspended in error do have the means to appeal, but to many, it seems unnecessary and insulting to have to argue that they’re “not a Nazi” with a social media platform because they were celebrating the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Those complaints seem even more founded now, as those who have had their accounts suspended over political disagreements or historical photos question how and why a father was able to sell his 16-year-old daughter over the platform for a reported $10,000 and 500 cows in South Sudan.
“This barbaric use of technology is reminiscent of latter-day slave markets. That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world’s biggest social networking site in this day and age is beyond belief,” George Otim, Country Director of Plan International South Sudan, said of the auction. Plan International is a humanitarian organization that focuses on the rights of children, particularly girls.
“While it is common for dowries to be used in marriages in South Sudanese culture, nothing can excuse the way this girl – who is still a child – has been treated as nothing more than an object, sold off to the bidder prepared to offer the most money and goods.”
The bidding on the young girl began with a post on October 15th of this year, and in Facebook’s defense, it was eventually removed. However, the post wasn’t removed until 15 days after it went up — notably well after the bidding war between five wealthy Sudanese men, some of whom are said to be government officials, was over. Facebook responded to these criticisms by claiming that the post was removed as soon as it was identified, but CNN points out that the story was already making international headlines three days before the auction post was removed.
“Any form of human trafficking — whether posts, pages, ads or groups is not allowed on Facebook. We removed the post and permanently disabled the account belonging to the person who posted this to Facebook,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
“We’re always improving the methods we use to identify content that breaks our policies, including doubling our safety and security team to more than 30,000 and investing in technology,” the spokesperson added.
To those who see Facebook’s censorship practices as more of a political stunt than a sincere effort to police digital morality, this situation seems to confirm their worst fears. If an account can be immediately suspended over sharing historic photos from World War II or insulting an elected official but not for selling a human child, some priorities regarding focus do seem to be amiss.
Even if Facebook does manage to right the ship, it will be too late for that young girl from South Sudan. She was reportedly married to the highest bidder on November 3.