Friday, July 3

Censoring Fiction: A Facebook Review

For the better part of a year now, 44 weeks to be exact, I've been writing one short story a week for a project that challenged me to write 50 short-short stories for 50 weeks. By short-short, I mean stories that range from the shortest — a mere 30 words — to more robust pieces up to around 2,600 words.

The challenge has been a great exercise, twofold. I've been consistent, always meeting my Thursday deadline. The discipline in doing so has helped me grow as a story writer and, at the same time, establish a small following on my Facebook page where I share my stories as a first look. The audience is mostly organic word of mouth, supported only by two small promotional buys: one general page promotion, and one $1 a day story promotion for each.

The formula has grown the page from 200 to 1,200 followers, which isn't bad since my offering is best described as eclectic. The stories toggle back and forth from a slice of life and experimental to supernatural and thriller. If there is any underlying theme, it's that each takes place in a different state, and the read time never really exceeds 10 minutes. Eventually, they'll be published as the collection called "50 States."

The Problem With Censorship  

Except for this week, my short story won't be promoted. Facebook rejected the promotion, then approved the promotion, and then rejected the promotion again. It's not clear what prompted the appeal to be re-reviewed, but I do know it wasn't my audience or anyone seeing the promoted story. The promotion never recorded negative feedback. In fact, people enjoyed it.

Without giving much away, The Sweeper is about a young filmmaker in 1972. Medford is biding his time before taking a teaching position at a college in Connecticut by heading down south with his family to make a documentary about civil rights in rural Mississippi. Medford has some preconceived notions about the south, which is enough to frame the plot conflict without giving too much away.

Interestingly enough, I've had a couple setbacks with story promotions before, but they've always won an appeal because, well, they are fictional stories. The first one that was ever rejected was because the reviewer thought I was sharing personal information about a real person. I won an appeal because the character was not a real person. The second rejection was accidental. I won an appeal because the first reviewer misread what I wrote.

The Sweeper experience was different because it was initially flagged for potentially "influencing the election" and required me to verify my identification. I followed the same path I had in the past to appeal and the promotion was approved. As I said, about six hours later, the approval was retracted on a new premise that the story somehow violates community standards.

Doesn't that cut right to the heart of the matter? The problem with censorship is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive" whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. It's subjective — so subjective that different Facebook reviewers had different conclusions. And that's what is happening inside Facebook today.

When A Mission Doesn't Matter

Sure, I understand that more than 400 companies are clamoring after Facebook to censor more content, under the guise of removing "hate speech." It's not a bad principle. I hate "hate speech." But, as always, censorship is one of those things that sounds good in theory and then breaks down in practice. There is no hate speech in The Sweeper. It's the opposite.

In fact, rejecting the promotion isn't a violation of Facebook's community standards as much as it's a violation of its mission. Facebook's mission, after all, is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

Except for a short story set in 1972. Never mind it was written to bring people together more than tear them apart.

There Really Isn't Any Recourse

I don't want anyone to think I'm shedding real tears. The story hasn't been banned outright. Sure, it's a shame that Medford isn't allowed to introduce new readers to my writing. His potential reach is only being unfairly stunted (as there is no community standard violation). It's fiction.

And yet, I see this incident as something else too. I've written other stories that brush up against similar subjects without concern because I intentionally handle such subjects gently. So this decision really is a reversal that undermines the social network's mission.

It sets a precedent that says one day The Sweeper won't be allowed to reside there or any other stories that might be a bother even if they don't bother anyone. It tells us that for all the best intentions, brands like Microsoft Corp., PepsiCo, Ford Motor, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Verizon, and Unilever are setting the stage for something considerably more sinister: a world where the only stories told are vetted by increasingly unforgiving, arbitrary, and unjust community standards. And it alludes to a future where the freedom of speech and independent thought is no longer valued in America, censored not by government but by unelected corporations that want to own all messages.
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