Don’t pin your hopes on posts

In the last couple of columns, I have been talking about the public debate (or censorship thereof) on the redefinition of marriage and other issues with some connection to the LGBTI community.

There’s another interesting aspect to this debate, and that is the role which social media (and Facebook in particular) has to play.

A little over a week ago, Christian author John Dickson published a Facebook post which spoke about the marriage debate in the context of the oft-repeated claim that a plebiscite would give those in favour of traditional marriage a license for “hate-filled” and “bigoted” speech which could be damaging to the mental health of young people who identify as LGBTI.

The topic is a serious one.

According to a 2013 report from BeyondBlue, LGBTI Australians are twice as likely to have a high or very high level of psychological distress or to experience anxiety disorders as their heterosexual peers. Persons who identify as LGBTI also have the highest rates of suicidality of any other group in Australia.

If as Christians we are supposed to be consistently, authentically and holistically pro-life, we should be concerned about this statistic. And we should ensure that our words and actions do not contribute to feelings of isolation or rejection amongst our LGBTI brothers and sisters.

Mr Dickson’s post said something similar.

But he also went on to say that in addition to Christians being careful in this regard, those who lobby for the redefinition of marriage also need to exercise thought and charity in their speech. Mr Dickson said those saying that Christians hate and reject LGBTI persons are usually the same people claiming to be LGBTI advocates. And his statement has some merit. Apart from the Westboro Baptist Church, when was the last time a Christian community expressed hatred for those in the LGBTI community?
Facebook deleted the post, and sent Mr Dickson an email advising him that it had been removed for being against its community standards (presumably those relating to hate speech.)

It was only reinstated after intervention from Tim Wilson, former Human Rights Commissioner and now Liberal Party candidate for Goldstein intervened.
Mr Wilson (who is openly homosexual and in favour of marriage redefinition) made a stand in favour of Mr Dickson, phoned someone from Facebook’s government relations department to object.

To its credit, Facebook reversed its decision, reinstated the post and apologised to Mr Dickson. But I do wonder whether they would have reverted in the same way if Mr Wilson hadn’t objected.

I wonder how many other thoughtful posts have been written which we haven’t seen because Facebook has declared them to be “hate speech”. I wonder whether I am receiving a true reflection of the views of my Facebook friends, or a sanitised view based on Facebook’s version of “community standards”.

In an unrelated story, it was reported around the same time that some Facebook employees took a company poll to ask founder Mark Zuckerberg whether Facebook should try to prevent Donald Trump being elected US President in 2017. As an example of how this might be done, Facebook could change its algorithm to ensure that any posts referring to Trump did not appear in anyone’s news feed, it could promote anti-Trump messages and articles, or ensure posts favouring his opponent are seen frequently.

I suppose if I had thought about it for a few minutes, I would have realised that Facebook has this ability. And we know that Facebook is happy to support political causes (it has recently partnered with Australian Marriage Equality to promote the redefinition of marriage in the lead up to a national vote).

But before reading the story about Trump in the days following Mr Dickson’s post being deleted, I had never turned my mind to it. And so I found the idea to be alarming!

It’s not only Facebook which has this ability, but Google, Twitter and pretty much every search engine and social media platform. They are privately owned and so not bound by the rules of fair debate. Ironically, these platforms can use extraordinarily unequal treatment in the ideological pursuit of “equality”.

Forty per cent of all traffic to news websites originates from Facebook, meaning that four in 10 use it as their primary news source. Some could say that this means Facebook has the ability to control the information almost half the population receives.

Well, yes and no. Facebook’s reach only extends within the bounds of Facebook, and it can only control the flow of information if we use it as the sole source of that information.

The best way to respond to the idea that the search engines and communication tools most of us use daily might be able to restrict the information we receive is to broaden our horizons. In all matters, but particularly on issues of social importance, we need to make sure we are well informed. We need to read widely, listen carefully and think deeply.

These big corporations can only control what we know to the extent we permit it to be the case.