“Anti-Semitic” Facebook content: Outcast takes flak for its client


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.

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5 Responses to “Anti-Semitic” Facebook content: Outcast takes flak for its client

  1. Fred Taub - Boycott Watch says:

    Actually, we are targeting Outcast in general, as they are the official spokespeople for Facebook. Also, this is not a matter of political free speech – you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater and we are battling pure hate. Calling Jews ‘dogs’ and posting photos of Israel in the cross-hairs of a rifle is pure anti-Semtitsm and is a violation of Facebook Community Standards despite Outcast claiming otherwise.

  2. Patricia Brenner says:

    There is quite a difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. While the first amendment protects some hate speech in the United States, facebook is read in countries where you have very strict hate speech laws, like Canada and most European countries. Moreover facebook’s own community standards prohibit hate speech.

    So whenever somebody uses the n word, he is immediately censored. On the other hand Jews are routinely called kikes and dogs and you have calls to kill them all and this seems to be fine with the community standards as enforced by facebook. This is what we decry.

  3. Judy Jensen says:

    The title is misleading. The Outcast Agency is not taking flak for their cleint. Outcast is taking flak for their own actions.

  4. Stuart Bruce says:

    Excellent article Paul. And I’d tend to agree with you that the policy should be to err on the side of more freedom of expression. Regardless of the rights/wrongs of the politics I am concerned that a lot of this appears to be an attempt by one side to shut down free speech. And in this case targeting the agency, rather than Facebook seems rather hypocritical for an organisation that campaigns against boycotts!

    • Amira says:

      It is easy to shout that one side is trying to affect freedom of speech…the pages that are targeted are not the ones that call for boycott but the ones that are using the FB platform to spread certain images of Jews and Israelis.
      A page that shows a picture of corps in a concentration camp and the legend below it is “Lazy Jews” is not falling in my dictionary under free speech. A page the promote killing people because of their religion or race, is not falling under freedom of speech. I would like to remind you that the Nazi came to power in democratic elections and it was their propaganda and free speech that brought to the death of not only Jews, but gays, gypsies, people with mental illness and in general anyone that was not blond, blue eyed and healthy that they could put their hands on. So, I prefer a little bit less free speech and a better FB. Just saying…

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