What makes someone a terrorist? No one knows. Our country, founded as it was on revolution, is a perfect example of the moral relativism of “terror.” To the British, American revolutionaries would probably qualify as terrorists. But in the U.S., we see these fighters as heroes, their adulation worthy of absurdly priced Broadway tickets.
Each mass shooting brings cries to label the perpetrator a terrorist, as debates rage in the media over the racially loaded term. Oppressive governments worldwide use the word to refer to their opposition, while others label to those same governments agents of terror. According to the philosopher C.A.J. Cody, the definition of the term is inherently“irresolvable,” because “its natural home is in polemical, ideological and propagandist contexts.”
These contradictions make the policing of online forums like Facebook pretty tricky, to say the least. Though the U.N. often condemns what they consider terrorist acts around the world—especially when directed at civilians—they are concerned about Facebook adopting an over-broad definition of the term. U.N. Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin recently sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking that he consider this ambiguity in his companies policies.
Ní Aoláin suggested in her letter that Facebook follow the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which recommends limiting the impact of the platform’s rules on free speech, and creating “effective, user-friendly, and transparent methods to mitigate those impacts,” three words that don’t exactly spring to mind when contemplating Facebook’s policies.
The rapporteur specifically cited Facebook’s definition of a terrorist organization as “any non-governmental organization that engages in premeditated acts of violence against persons or property to intimidate a civilian population, government, or international organization in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim.”
“The use of such a sweeping definition is particularly worrying in light of a number of governments seeking to stigmatize diverse forms of dissent and opposition (whether peaceful or violent) as terrorism,” Ní Aoláin wrote in her letter to Zuckerberg.
There is reason to be concerned about how Facebook’s policies might classify speech even within the U.S. A recently leaked FBI report showed that the agency was concerned about violence from “black identity extremists,” an identification that has led to jail time based on Facebook posts of some Black Lives Matter activists.
“When we talk about enemies of the state and terrorists, with that comes an automatic stripping of those people’s rights to speak and protest,” Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Guardian in an article about the FBI report. “It marginalizes what are legitimate voices within the political debate that are calling for racial and economic justice.”
Ní Aoláin has now met with Facebook to discuss her concerns, and was encouraged by the dialogue. “Facebook have indicated a willingness to discuss these issues in a productive way, engaging with the human rights and humanitarian law compliance concerns raised by the mandate,” she told Just Security. “The mandate [of her U.N. office] will also be reaching out to other platforms whose practices mirror Facebook and who have not been as transparent and open about their working methods and criteria.”
“By transparently sharing our definition of terrorism, our goal is to create opportunities for increased dialogue with important stakeholders, as was the case here,” Facebook spokesperson Ruchika Budhraja told Just Security. “We welcome this dialogue and hope to continue our conversations with the Special Rapporteur and others who are thinking deeply and working tirelessly on these issues.”
But even if they are willing to listen to authorities like the U.N., Facebook will always be woefully ill-equipped to make these decisions. The world is full of groups who hate each other and each believe that they are in the right. There’s no way to make everyone happy. More importantly, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and other massively popular platforms don’t really care what we want, as long as we still use their services. Facebook represents no one but themselves.
“Companies like Facebook are increasingly engaged in forms of regulation traditionally ascribed to States,” Ní Aoláin writes in her letter. This is exactly the problem. Facebook has tremendous power, but no accountability to the public. We don’t elect Facebook’s CEO, and have no power to oust him if he’s doing a bad job. But Zuckerberg and Co. are already in the process of deciding what’s acceptable to post online. And while debates rage over what exactly that should be, perhaps we should step back and consider how this company amassed so much undemocratic power over our lives in the first place.