An underground group of former Muslim-Australians has condemned Facebook’s censorship of their views, after several pages were suspended and banned for allegedly not adhering to “community standards”.
Amid growing controversy over the role of online media giants and whether they are media publishers or, as often claimed, facilitators of debate, Facebook has shut down pages and groups of ex-Muslims, following organised and concerted efforts by thousands of users who have flagged pages they believe disrespect Islam.
Several English and Arabic-language Facebook pages have been targeted, including the Ex-Muslims of North America page — which has now reopened — and the page of Mufti News, an online website that satirises Islam in the style of The Onion.
Both respectively have about 25,000 likes.
Atheist pages have also been closed, including Iraqi Atheists and Arab Atheist Network, along with Atheist Republic, which has nearly 1.7 million followers.
In one of the dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to flagging “anti-Islamic pages”, clear directions are given to its more than 10,000 users to report ex-Muslim pages for hate speech in a “war against kuffar (disbelievers)”.
A spokeswoman for the secret group of Australian ex-Muslims, who asked not to be publicly identified for security reasons, told The Australian the group condemned the censorship of ex-Muslim and irreligious voices, and said Facebook needed to improve its reporting system.
“In Australia, we have a private ex-Muslim online community that has been crucial with regards to providing support, guidance and safety of its members,” the spokeswoman said.
“This platform has been a safe haven for people who otherwise would feel alone (and) misplaced, and face many psychological and social struggles. The benefit of these platforms is they are freely accessible, and can be done privately and away from the gaze of family or the Muslim community.
“Restrictions to these platforms would be overwhelmingly damaging to Australian ex-Muslims who are too afraid to go public with their views, due to the taboo of leaving and criticising religion.”
The spokeswoman said they were pleading with Facebook to “improve their reporting system to protect groups such as ours”.
The University of Technology Sydney’s professor of journalism Peter Fray, a former editor-in chief at The Sydney Morning Herald and deputy editor of The Australian, said it was not feasible for technology giants such as Facebook and Google to claim they were simply platforms.
“They have a role to play in publishing material,” he said. “There is a social responsibility — they are not empty vessels for people to pour whatever into it.
“They do have a role in stopping hate speech, but we all know from … experience, in the name of stopping hate speech, freedom of speech gets trammelled.”
Professor Fray hoped a proposed Senate inquiry into public interest journalism created a more informed debate about the role of social media platforms.
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