Is Facebook censoring students' right to a voice?
By Manjot Kaur, 17 years old, Mudgee, NSW
Late Friday night I received an unsettling text message: “Has the School Strike page been hacked?”
I left the movie I had been watching with my family and dashed to open Facebook on my laptop. Messenger group chats of school strikers were a flurry of concerns and 50+ unread messages, all worrying about the same thing; school strike facebook events had been removed from the site. I searched for the Sydney strike event and couldn’t find a trace. All links led to an automated facebook message - ‘Event deleted’.
I felt overwhelmed and affronted. There was no reason for someone to report or delete a peaceful student event. And I had never heard of that happening to any adult event organised around the climate crisis. Why us? Why now?
Facebook is the foundation of how we communicate and organise. It is the hub of our political engagement. It’s been the way in which students across schools, and across the country have organised together - strategise, made connections. To be blocked on Facebook blocks the network from each other and blocks the promotion of our strikes. It is so core to how we function as a grassroots movement, that having it compromised made us breathless. It was a perfect way to weaken the movement.
We reported the mass deletion to Facebook and received an automated response, telling us to wait a few hours for the ‘unavailable’ event - citing site maintenance. I experienced another wave of doubt. Again, as a group of young people we were at the mercy of the wider platform we had chosen to rely on. At 12am, I fell into an uneasy sleep to the hope of a temporary glitch.
I woke on Saturday to vibrations from my phone. Facebook messages. I skimmed through notifications and my bleary eyes picked up a few key words; “violation of community guidelines”.
Someone had checked the links and found that all 26 individual strike events, from regional to metropolitan Australia, were still missing, quoting the same reason. Any posts about the strikes were also censored due to those “community standards”. I was outraged. What kind of community standards don’t include democratic discussion?
For a moment, I felt like a schoolgirl who was in trouble for speaking out of turn, before I remembered that this wasn’t a classroom. This was my life and my future, and I was meant to use my right to expression. Speaking out of turn was in fact essential for a functioning democracy.
And Facebook was actively censoring and silencing democratic participation. A strong sense of injustice mobilised us with passion and indignation. Students were awake and active, calling the Facebook helpline, sending online reports and contacting journalists and adult mentors for advice. In minutes, a petition was started and shared by our network of thousands of students across the world. Instead of silencing us, the censorship from Facebook had made us want to be louder than ever. Instead of subduing us, it had made us bolder, for surer. When taken away, our freedom of expression became more essential than ever. The attack on our liberty made us all the more aware that the strike was a vital action.
After 1pm, Facebook responded. But not to us.
We received notice from a 3rd party that a facebook spokesperson had reached out the media; it had been “an error”. Our events were republished and the tension began to dissipate.
What lingered was a sense that we had been wronged.
During the whole process, there was an absence of communication from Facebook - a blatant lack of respect and recognition. As young people, we weren’t taken seriously. We were treated differently and once again, the conversation had been delegated to the adults, with Facebook only deigning to reply when external forces were brought into play. In removing these events, Facebook had taken away the main platform of communication for organisation and promotion of the School Strikes, effectively silencing the concerns of thousands of young Australians. But they had also revealed that they didn’t think we were worthy of the most basic courtesies like a response.
Days later and we have not received a direct response from Facebook nor any details on why our events were removed.
We are no strangers to public condemnation and disrespect. Ahead of the November 2018 School Strikes, Scott Morrison infamously told School strikers to go back to school. It was a misguided attempt to tame our passion. Rather than doing what we were told, inflamed by his disregard, the Prime Minister’s remarks led to hundreds more students joining the strike. The reason was simple - when students were told to get out of the debate we soon realised that our presence was more important than ever. Our lives will be the most affected by climate change, and that means that our voices need to be heard. Especially when all politicians from all stripes are not acting like this issue is the most serious one confronting us today.
Facebook now joins the Australian government in the sinister game of trying to silence young people on the issue of climate change. It’s got all of us in the Student Strike movement asking why? Why do they seem so frightened by the voices of young people?
The voice of Australia’s youth is already grossly misrepresented and absent in Australian politics. School students can’t vote and we are too young to run for office. Unlike other countries, Australia has no Youth Minister and reduced avenues of political participation.
Young people deserve to be able to exercise our right to peaceful protests and freedom of expression, in the face of the catastrophic impacts climate change has on our future. We are already denied a voice on an institutional level, and now the community platforms where we ask for change are threatened.
In a time where Australia is facing extreme consequences of climate change, there should be nothing controversial about asking our politicians to act to prevent further climate impacts, on us and future generations. Parts of Australia are on fire, NSW is still recovering from massive drought, January has been recorded as the hottest month ever. Young people will soon have to deal with even worse, yet the government’s climate policy to combat these effects remains nonexistent.
The people of Australia are suffering at the hands of a sedentary government whilst democratic actions like the School Strike are blocked.
It was an error, “a mistake”, as Facebook said. But it was certainly not an accident.
Students will be leading strikes across the country on March 15. We ask every one of you - adults, mums, dads, grandparents, teachers, workers, supporters - to stand with us. Not only for action on climate change but for the freedom of expression that those in power want to take away.