Labour MP Lucy Powell has been appearing in the media to promote her “Private Member’s Bill” which, as she describes it, is intended to ‘establish’:
legal accountability for what’s published in large online forums, I believe we can force those who run these echo chambers to stamp out the evil that is currently so prominent. Social media can be a fantastic way of bringing people together – which is precisely why we need to prevent it being hijacked by those who instead wish to divide.
The proposed bill raises obvious concerns about free speech issues, for example who decides what qualifies as the ‘extremist views’ that Powell wants to curtail. When Facebook recently deleted and blocked posts from an array of independent left media pages, who is to say that an ‘extremist view’ will not be defined as ‘anything we don’t like’ when it suits the Establishment?
It’s also exceptionally clumsy, heavy-handed and shows a dearth of understanding of the nature of Facebook groups and the task of moderating them, which is usually undertaken by a relatively small number of overstretched and well-intentioned people seeking to give people the opportunity to find and exchange views and information positively.
The chilling effect on free speech of making volunteers legally accountable if they miss a distasteful post – or don’t draw the ‘right’ line when it comes to a questionable comment or issue – would be huge.
But on the same day that Powell was pitching her views to readers and viewers of the ‘MSM’, Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby has given Powell a demonstration of a more balanced way to approach the issue of unacceptable comments in Facebook groups.
Moderators of Labour-related Facebook groups have received the following message from Formby. Emphases have been added by the SKWAWKBOX:
I’m writing to you as I understand that you are an admin or moderator of a Facebook group which refers to the Labour Party or Jeremy Corbyn in its title.
The use of the Party’s name or Jeremy Corbyn’s name can give the false impression that the Party is responsible for these groups and that they have some kind of official status. We are therefore writing to request that – if your group has not already done so – you:
- Make clear, in the “about” section or title of the group, that the group is unofficial and not affiliated with the Labour Party and/or Jeremy Corbyn.
- Take active measures against antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory content, which can make Jewish people and others feel unwelcome in these spaces
- Antisemitism is an evil that permeates our society, and our Party is not immune from that. We have seen members make disgusting antisemitic comments and promote antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories in relation to left wing discourses, particularly around Israel and Palestine, and capitalism and globalisation. They may be a small proportion of our membership, but one is too many.
Recently Labour staff have seen examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers, conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel, and even one individual who appeared to believe that Hitler had been misunderstood.
Some comments and images propagating such antisemitic tropes have been posted in a number of Facebook groups. The majority of posts in Facebook groups that have been reported to us are made by people who are not Labour members. However, where the Party is notified of such posts made by Party members, we investigate and take action as appropriate.
As Jeremy has said, we all have a responsibility to help drive this evil out of our movement. And, of course, the vast majority of members want to use Facebook groups and other forums to share ideas and experiences about campaigning, debate Party policies and discuss current affairs.
Effective moderation is essential to providing welcoming and respectful environments in which such discussions can take place. We understand that you are engaging in these online communities voluntarily, and the sheer number of posts and comments may be hard to moderate. However, we would like to emphasise the utmost importance of ensuring that fellow party members and supporters feel welcome and respected, and of rooting out any antisemitism or otherwise discriminatory comments and behaviour.
Here are suggestions about ways you can effectively moderate your groups to ensure that these online spaces do not tolerate or enable the promotion of antisemitic or otherwise hateful or discriminatory views.
- Add more administrators/moderators so that there is greater capacity to monitor posts and comments. Try to check posts and comments in the group every day, or more as required.
- Use Facebook’s group moderation options to create up to ten rules for your group. These should clearly set out that antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory content will not be tolerated and those making such comments will be removed from the group and reported to the Labour Party. Set the tone of the debate you’d like people to engage in: friendly, open-minded, fair and respectful.
- Take seriously all reports and complaints about comments which are seen as misogynist, racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, discriminatory towards people with disabilities, or otherwise prejudicial.
- Be proactive: screenshot then remove posts and conversations with antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory content, and block individuals from the group who post such content.
- Encourage group members to use the “Report to admin” feature, and take these reports seriously. Frequently review the reported content using Facebook’s moderation sidebar. Screenshot then delete posts with antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory content, and block the user responsible.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org with screenshots and links to antisemitic or prejudicial comments or posts if you believe the individual who has posted them may be a Labour member so that this can be investigated by the Party.
- Change settings if necessary to allow administrators to approve or deny requests to join the group, so that you have greater control over who is in the group.
- Comment or post in the group regularly reminding people that posts or comments which include antisemitic or otherwise hateful or prejudicial content will be removed and the users will be blocked, and encourage members to report any posts they see which are offensive or inappropriate.
- Maintain a pinned post in the group explaining the above policies and emphasising the importance of maintaining a welcoming and respectful environment.
To reiterate, please email email@example.com with screenshots and links to antisemitic or prejudicial comments or posts if you believe the individual who has posted them may be a Labour member. This will then be investigated by the Party.
The Party will soon be launching a political education programme to foster deeper understanding and awareness of antisemitism within our movement. This will include videos and other online resources. We would greatly appreciate if you could share such content, once published, in Facebook groups and other forums, to help us raise greater awareness about this important issue.
Please reply confirming receipt of this letter and confirming that the requests the Party has made will be adhered to. If they will not be adhered to, I request that you remove any reference to the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn from the title of your Facebook group.
Please get in touch if you have any questions.
The Labour Party
Even this message has stirred some unrest, with moderators feeling that the nod the message gives to their status as volunteers and the amount of work involved is insufficient, while the task of finding new and reliable moderators is far from as easy as the message seems to indicate. The request to report content to the party is also causing discomfort, with an understandable unease about the idea of acting as ‘informers’.
However, as a balanced way of enlisting support and addressing issues with minimal effect on free speech, it is streets ahead of Lucy Powell’s attempt to ‘force’ volunteers who run groups to toe an arbitrary line.
And ultimately, Formby’s message is what is says in its second paragraph: a request. A senior Labour source told the SKWAWKBOX:
To be frank, moderators can do as much or as little as they want, they’re independent of the party and its impractical to expect a political party to monitor or control every Facebook group that mentions its name, even if it wanted to.
The message just makes suggestions to help prevent people from being attacked and shows Labour doing what it reasonably can.
On the issue of freedom of expression, the existing code of conduct is still in place – it’s NEC policy until/unless it is amended. The Chakrabarti report is still NEC policy and the agreed statement that the IHRA working definition does not undermine freedom of expression or the rights of Palestinians is NEC policy.
IHRA is a non legally binding – the IHRA’s words – reference document as a guide to what may – again the IHRA’s words – be antisemitic depending on context, which are their words again.
The most important thing is for members and supporters to keep in mind the general code of conduct – discuss all issues with respect and don’t be abusive. This is what most people end up receiving warnings for other than the occasional really horrible cases. We are looking separately at how complaints are made.
More respect and thought in online communications is always welcome, but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that attempts to regulate the content of groups run by volunteers beyond what existing laws already do is an expression of a desire on the part of the Establishment to suppress inconvenient speech and curb the power of social media to undermine its control. That impression is only strengthened by the Tory and ‘centrist’ MPs who are co-sponsoring the bill.
It’s far from perfect, but Labour’s attempt to harness the voluntary – in all senses – assistance of people of good will shows, yet again, that the party is ahead of curve in its respect for our rights as well as its desire to protect.
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