Earlier this year, the Pakistani government launched a campaign against religious blasphemy on social media. The campaign, driven by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, aims to block and remove all Internet content considered to be blasphemous toward the Islamic faith. Recently, the government has made attempts to convince social media companies such as Facebook to aid the efforts by taking down blasphemous content. However, these companies have no obligation to follow the orders of local governments and therefore should not restrict the free speech of their users any more than their policies allow.
As of now, Facebook’s Community Standards policy is to “remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement when (they) believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.” The company also censors content containing nudity, hate speech and graphic violence, but allows humor, satire and social commentary on topics related to these. For example, sharing an example of hate speech and commenting about how such speech is incorrect would likely be allowed.
However, this is a difficult line to straddle, so most of the material that Facebook censors has to be recommended by users through censorship requests. A team then sorts through the flagged material and decides whether or not it should be taken down. This gives users more power to assert their free speech before some items are considered for censorship. Alternatively, Facebook has also taken steps to promote counter-speech, a method by which users correct other offensive or inaccurate posts and thus reduce the need for censorship in some cases.
The issue of Facebook becoming involved in national politics occurs when the censorship requests of the government do not match Facebook’s own policies. In Pakistan, blasphemy is a serious crime, and anyone who insults the Prophet Muhammad could be sentenced to death. Additionally, Al Jazeera reports that in January of this year, five activists accused of posting blasphemous content disappeared after the Pakistani government located them, though they reappeared three weeks later.
The Pakistani government’s request for Facebook to monitor this material already restricts satirists, comedians and social commenters, which the company’s current policy does not oppose. Though it is quite common for Facebook to receive government requests, this request, like those of other governments, already bypasses the traditional user reporting system by requiring that Facebook remove content before average users have flagged it. But more importantly, in the case of Pakistan, such political involvement from a social media company could lead to enormous repercussions. When allegations of blasphemy could lead to something as serious as a death sentence, companies such as Facebook should not have a responsibility to become involved in the censorship process.
Facebook will soon send a representative to discuss the company’s involvement with Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy censorship, but unfortunately, the issue is not as simple as refusing to aid the Pakistani government. First of all, if Facebook refuses to comply with government requests, the social media platform could easily be blocked within an entire country. According to a CNN report, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the situation, saying, “We want to give as many people as possible the ability to express as much as possible.” Sometimes, this means the company has to work with the government to allow most people within a country to communicate at the expense of limiting some free speech. This is why Facebook has removed thousands of pieces of content in India, Pakistan and Turkey, including images of Mohammed that were posted in Turkey.
The other issue that must be considered is the gravity of blasphemy allegations in Pakistani culture, specifically concerning depictions of the religious figure Mohammed. While satirical representation of religious figures might be common in other cultures, it is a serious offense in predominantly Muslim countries and extremely insulting to Pakistani culture. Therefore, if Pakistani users flag such an image as offensive, and it is determined that the image is being used in an offensive context, Facebook should take action to remove the content as it would any hate crime. This does not, however, mean that the company should aid the government in locating and persecuting these blasphemers. As long as the post does not threaten or harm anyone, private companies should remain uninvolved in the legal transgressions of these blasphemers.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.