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Facebook is like my cat. My cat eyes me, quietly, steadily, continually. She is covertly gathering data, I know she is. But unlike Facebook, the data-gathering is not for marketing, nor for demographic data, nor for use by a hostile foreign power – but rather for the tell-all book I know she’s going to write about me.
Like Facebook, my cat will make nice to me when she senses she’s lost her edge. She’ll twine around my legs, purring softly with an occasional lick at the ankle or toe. Similarly, Facebook will show it Really Cares, announcing, “It’s your Friendversary with Irv!” – accompanying that joyous news with a series of composite photos: Irv and me in a cartoon canoe, Irv and me climbing a cartoon mountain, Irv and me singing the Baby Shark song to a cartoon crowd of smiley faces. (I don’t like Irv, I haven’t spoken to him in 18 years and I haven’t the foggiest what he’s doing on my friends list.)
Like Facebook, my cat is aware of her awesome power. My blood runs cold as I watch her toy with a helpless bug or shoelace. In the same manner, Facebook’s apparatchiks wrap themselves in a coat of condescending contempt in the face of criticism, condemnation and Congress, playing them with the cool confidence (stealing from Mark Twain here) of a Christian with four aces.
There is, however, one major difference between Facebook and my cat, and that is that, unlike Facebook, my cat won’t threaten to kick me out of the community. She still needs me for food, and will keep me around until she deems that my usefulness to her is at an end.
Facebook, on the other hand, does not need me, and let me know as much the other day when it singled me out for hate speech.
“Your comment has been removed as hate speech,” the screen scolded. “Facebook will not tolerate hate speech.”
My crime: the phrase “men are beasts.”
Okay, so I was comforting a friend who’d been wronged by a cad. One of many in her life. “Men are beasts,” I commented, speaking from a deep well of experience as a man. The comment elicited some appreciative laughs and likes. But it also set off the alarms in Count Zuckerberg’s citadel.
Without giving me time to recover from the gut punch, Facebook instantly demanded that I confirm or deny that I was indeed purveying hate speech. Intimidated, reeling, unthinking, I let my finger nudge “enter,” confirming that I am indeed a Hate Speech Person, a bigot, a maggot to be closely monitored so as not to infect decent people with my misbegotten attempts at consolation and commiseration.
Seconds later, too late, I realized that I’d allowed myself to be intimidated by an intractable, invincible opponent.
Again, kind of like my cat.
If my cat wants something from me, one withering look is all it takes to freeze my brain cells and make me do her bidding.
Section III, Part 11 of Facebook’s Community Standards defines hate speech as “a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.”
Okay. So how does “men are beasts” fit in here? Am I directly attacking gender identity – men – by calling them beasts? If that’s the case, I apologize to all men and hereby say that, zoologically at least, you are not beasts. I further apologize, for that matter, to all beasts for implying you are something that you obviously chose not to be. However, in my defence, there were plenty of worse things said about men on that thread, mostly by my wronged friend.
In fact, while we’re pointing fingers, far worse things have been said to me on Facebook, in far louder and crasser tones, attacking me personally, for my politics, my opinions, my diet, my motives and my alleged nighttime habits – none of which, apparently, qualify as hate speech.
So while my right to post fuzzy bunnies and funny jokes about hamsters is now in mortal danger, others, the true “beasts” of the community, can blithely go along their jolly, brainless, arrogant, destructive way, trashing good people, ingesting and spewing venom, and vomiting it out by the 10-millionfold.
Staring at the new message on my screen, Facebook’s smug affirmation that I am now a self-confessed fiend, I tried to reverse my confirm, to find the “I’m-back-to-my-rational-self-and-I’ve-changed-my-mind” button, but could only locate a feedback menu that permitted me to say my piece about “your Facebook experience,” and which assured me that, regrettably, an acknowledgment would not be forthcoming, and that certainly no action would be taken, but thank you so very much now go away.
I’ve made 3,452 major mistakes in my life, or slightly above the national average. Hate speech, however, is not one of them. Facebook, too, makes mistakes. It even says so in its community-standards thingy. “It’s clear we’re not perfect,” it confesses. Fine. Your motives, at least, were commendable. As were mine. But how do we remove you from Facebook when you get out of line? How can we say, “Hey, Facebook, you have violated our community standards and we are barring you from … Facebook?”
We can’t, obviously, just as I can’t picket, protest or prosecute my cat.
Or can I? She isn’t looking … right now … it would be so easy. I’ll just make a sign and march around. That’ll show her who’s boss.
Michael Lewis lives in Clearwater, Fla.