Facebook is Censoring Legal Discussion of Guns

The social media news story of the week is the massive leak of internal Facebook content moderation policies – which has focused, unsurprisingly, on sex and graphic violence.

But amid the flood of content on which Facebook has issued guidelines for its overstretched army of moderators, the one pertaining to guns has got relatively little attention:

The restrictions around how you can depict and discuss firearms on the network is weirdly harsh – especially given that elsewhere the network has taken a lax approach to threats of violence, and even live broadcasts of suicide.

Facebook will let you depict a gun without comment, and also depict a gun in the context of hunting.

But expressing any desire to buy a gun will get you banned – even if the purpose of ownership is apparently benign.

Anyone can understand why Facebook would remove images of guns linked to threats of violence against people.

You can also see why they might not want people to start using Facebook as an underground marketplace for selling their old guns.

But the rule as written doesn’t say that – it would include a post saying “wow, I sure would like to add a Glock G42 to my collection”.

Expressing a wish to own a gun – which in the US is a constitutionally-protected activity – is apparently disallowed.

Its advice on gun images is included under the “threats” category.

However, according to the advice, gun images need not be accompanied by an actual threat – bizarre given that the possibility of real-world violence is the standard adopted elsewhere.

Heat Street invited a Facebook spokesman to comment on the policy, but could not get a straight answer. Despite repeated requests, a spokesman would only say, enigmatically, that “context is extremely important”.

The vast majority of gun owners are peaceful, the vast majority of gun purchases do not end in any crime or violence.

But Facebook is, effectively, treating gun ownership as an inherent threat.

Though imperfect, the leaked documents show that on most topics Facebook is at least trying very hard to take a nuanced approach, and limit unjust censorship.

On the issue of guns, however, Facebook appears to have a massive blind spot.