As Syria prepares for presidential elections on Tuesday, a group of human rights activists is petitioning Facebook to remove sponsored content and site pages linked to President Bashar al-Assad and his controversial campaign.
The movement was launched today by The Syria Campaign. One of the group’s activists, Anna Nolan, told VICE News that for at least the last three weeks advertisements sponsored by the embattled leader’s “Sawa” (“Together”) campaign were being run on Facebook.
“We thought it was outrageous that Facebook was profiting from a brutal dictator,” she said. “Facebook should not be making profits from a guy who’s responsible for thousands of civilian casualties.”
As part of the group’s online campaign and petition, they made a request for the social network to remove the advertisements and take down Assad’s accounts and pages. According to Nolan, the sponsored content contributed to the more than 200,000 followers on Sawa’s campaign page.
The group is also pushing for Facebook to donate the money received from the advertising sales to humanitarian causes in Syria. “You have world leaders coming out saying the election is a complete sham, so Facebook is really on the backfoot to openly allow [Assad] on the platform and to accept money from his election ads,” Nolan said.
A Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian today that the advertisements in question had already been taken down in order to comply with sanctions, and because they went against company policy. However, the company reportedly does not have plans to remove Sawa’s page.
“With over a billion users around the world, Facebook permits freedom of expression and we want to make sure people feel comfortable coming to Facebook to discuss what’s important to them, while making sure we maintain a safe and respectful community,” the spokesperson told the paper.
'There is no money exchanging hands, it’s just as legitimate for him to have a page as any Syrian politician.'
Jillian York, the director of international free expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told VICE News that Facebook ultimately has to follow the law, meaning it had no other choice but to remove the advertisements due to sanctions in place against Syria. At the same time, York says the company made the right call in keeping up the Sawa page on their site.
“Companies should allow everything to the fullest extent of the law,” she said. “There is no money exchanging hands, it’s just as legitimate for him to have a page as any Syrian politician.”
According to York, it gets tricky when companies decide to start blocking entire pages and entities from social media platforms. She highlighted an example from 2011 of a campaign calling for the Third Palestinian Intifada. Initially the Facebook page mostly consisted of calls for protests. It eventually grew to have more than 350,000 likes, while comments from users and administrators turned violent.
In May 2011 various groups and users made requests for its removal. Facebook initially decided to let the page stay, but eventually went the way of the public pressure.
"We continue to believe that people on Facebook should be able to express their opinions, and we don't typically take down content that speaks out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas. However, we monitor pages that are reported to us and when they degrade to direct calls for violence or expressions of hate — as occurred in this case — we have and will continue to take them down," Facebook said at the time.
York sees cause for concern that, in cases like this, social media sites and their staff are making decisions based on internal policy, not legal statutes. As private companies they are completely in their right to do so, but in many cases they could be condemning material that would not actually be banned in court. Take the removal of breastfeeding photos, for example.
In that sense, freedom of speech and freedom of expression on sites like Facebook are not necessarily evaluated in the same manner we might be used to seeing in traditional spaces of public discussion.
“Is this what the future of free speech looks like? Based on decisions made by private companies?” she asked. “Because in that case it’s a bunch of men in their twenties making decisions about what’s acceptable.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
Photo via Flickr