Our selection of The Outcast Agency as our Technology Agency of the Year has generated some surprising responses. Outcast and its client Facebook have been the subject of some criticism for the latter’s decision to allow anti-Israel content to go uncensored. That criticism raises two issues of interest to the public relations business as a whole: the first is freedom of speech and the second concerns the relative accountability of clients and their agencies.
On the whole issue of freedom of speech, I tend to be something of a First Amendment fundamentalist. I believe the answer to speech we don’t like ought to be debate and discussion and counterbalancing speech, rather than censorship. Certainly I believe that the line between free speech and “unacceptable” speech is something about which reasonable people can disagree.
Moreover, it’s possible to defend the right to offensive speech without agreeing with that speech. And certainly one ought to be able to defend unpopular speech without charges of anti-Semitism being thrown about (more on this later).
Certainly, a company like Facebook should be able to take the same philosophical position. Free speech is central to its existence, and so it should err on the side of more rather than less—as long as it applies that policy evenhandedly. If it censors pages that are critical of Islam, it should also censor pages that are critical of Judaism. If it allows pages that are critical of the Syrian government (or the current US administration for that matter), it should also allow pages that are critical of the Israeli government.
Consistency is the key to crafting an intellectually defensible position. And a quick review of the pages cited in Boycott Watch suggests that the company is making a case-by-case decision. Some of those pages appear to have been removed; others—particularly those critical of Israeli policy or political philosophy—have been allowed to remain.
Having said that, I would have liked to see either Outcast or (preferably) Facebook issue a statement of its position of greater clarity than the one quoted in the Boycott Watch article. I could not, for example, find a statement addressing the Boycott Watch criticism on the Facebook news page. The result is that Facebook could easily be seen as using its PR agency (and one employee in particular) as a human shield in this instance (and yes, I know there are people who think that’s what a PR agency is for).
In the absence of such a statement, Boycott Watch is focusing (unfairly in my opinion) on a single employee at Outcast and accusing her of anti-Semitism. I do not know the individual involved, but I will say that (a) she is attempting to defend and articulate a policy that was decided upon by people far more senior, and if Boycott Watch wants to throw such charges about it would be more appropriate to throw them at Mark Zuckerberg and others who make Facebook policy; and (b) there is a tendency in some quarters to assume that any criticism of Israeli policy is necessarily anti-Semitic and to use charges of anti-Semitism to silence legitimate discussion.
The fact that Boycott Watch is targeting a relatively junior employee at a PR agency, rather than management at Facebook, and the fact that the charge of anti-Semitism is being thrown about in such a cavalier fashion (the employee in question defended the right to voice unpopular opinions, rather than the opinions themselves), looks more like bullying than a legitimate debate—which is what this topic deserves.