I am a victim of Facebook censorship. I didn't even know such a thing existed until it happened to me.
I know that this doesn't rise to the level of a major scandal. This isn't the NSA monitoring my emails or a library banning my latest book. So I'm not asking folks to create a defense fund or a protest committee on my behalf. Being new to the FB subculture, I'm not sure what the rules are. But I am concerned that there's a group of gatekeepers out there - Facebook moderators - who have the ability to cut people off from a slice of this new world of social media.
I assume I'm not the only person with this predicament. How do we avoid having this allegedly "democratic" form of communication fall into the hands people who abuse their authority and keep some people from expressing their views?
Here's what happened:
Eighteen months ago I was a Facebook (FB) virgin. But my publisher insisted that I create a FB page to help promote my new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. So I learned how to create and (sort of) manage a FB page and soon became somewhat addicted to this new toy which allowed me to instantly stay in touch with friends and colleagues, read interesting articles and photos that people posted, post other articles and photos that I found interesting, and share my own writings and musings with a growing list of FB "friends."
About six months ago I came across a FB page called "I Grew Up in Plainfield, New Jersey" and "joined" it. Every few weeks I'd look at it quickly to see if any of my old friends made an appearance (the page currently has 1,985 members), but I didn't bother to post any comments until this week.
Earlier this week, I noticed that some of the page's members were discussing the race riots that occurred in Plainfield in 1967. This is something I know something about, having lived through those events, studied and written about urban riots, and authored an article in The Nation magazine in 2007 about the uprising that forever changed my hometown. Written right after my high school class's 40th reunion, the article, called “Riot and Reunion: 40 Years Later," provoked considerable controversy among my classmates.
Many Plainfield High School classmates thought I had accurately captured the essence of this industrial and bedroom suburb, its class and racial divisions, and the causes and consequences of the riot that took place during that "long hot summer" that included other urban upheavals in Detroit, Newark, and other cities. Some, however, thought that I had exaggerated the city's racism and had unfairly characterized the Plainfield cop who was killed during the riot as a "racist," although what I had actually done is quote a black classmate who used that label.
Others simply criticized me for writing about the riots at all, arguing that a high school reunion was an occasion to renew old friendships and remember the "happy days" and not a time to relive the awful events that revealed Plainfield's ugly underbelly.
Wanting to contribute to the current discussion of the riots that had begun on the "I Grew Up In Plainfield" FB page, I posted a comment and included a link to my 2007 Nation article, which I'm sure few of the FB members knew about.*
No sooner had I posted the comment and the link then it disappeared. I figured I must have made some technical error, so I reposted it a few minutes later. Again, my comment and link disappeared.
I then tried to post a comment on the page, directed at the moderator, asking why this was happening. Up popped a message: "You do not have permission to post on this group."
In other words, the moderator not only deleted my comment, and the link to my article, but he also removed me from the FB page entirely! I had been banned, made into an outcast, denied the right to utilize this FB page to communicate with other former and current Plainfielders. And apparently one person had the ability, on a whim, to ban me. This is hardly McCarthyism, but I did see some parallels: Someone had just arbitrarily removed my FB passport for being a disloyal citizen.
To my surprise, the censorship provoked a lively discussion on the FB page, triggering over a hundred comments.
A few people on the Plainfield FB page managed to read part of my comment before it disappeared. Almost immediately, people began to question why my post and my article had disappeared. At first people were confused. The comments started off as modest inquiries about what happened.
“I was in the middle of reading it and it disappeared...again..."
"Oh boy, I was just going back to read it because it was too long as I was skimming."
"I missed everything... What was the topic, please? I like to be informed."
As people started realizing what happened, they got increasingly angry at what appeared to be censorship, although some still weren't clear what the "rules" are about posting on a FB page.
“Interesting, did I miss something or did the moderators just eliminate an entire topic because it was uncomfortable without explanation???? Really? Isn't the dialogue around topics such as this important as long as it is done rationally?"
"Something went missing here. Who did that? We weren't nun bashing or calling out the Afganistans for hiring our US troops to protect their heroin trade...So what is the problem? Thought I grew up In Plainfield in a freedom of speech country."
"The whole idea of "moderators" having the power to say who stays, who goes, who enters is in my opinion ludicrous. And anyone who would think that's ok is nuts."
"Peter Dreier -- nice article. Sorry your post got deleted."
"I was reading it, came back to make a comment, and it's gone for me. Very insightful article. Should be reposted."
"Is there a FB Handbook? We need to know the rules. We are intelligent red blooded Americans who follow the rules and if there are no printed rules that pertained to these posts, then restore the stream....by dammit!"
"Who are the people who "edit" the posts and what happened to freedom of speech? I'm fairly new on this site and I'm just not getting it?"
"I don't know and why was it deleted and by whom? Do we not have the right to post whatever we please?!!"
Eventually, people figured out that the culprit was the moderator, a man named Michael Izzo. The name sounded familiar to me. It turns out he had graduated from Plainfield High School the same year as I did, although I didn't know him back then. But I recall that he was one of the people who objected to my Nation article six years ago. And now, apparently, he was getting his revenge.
But members of the "I Grew Up in Plainfield, NJ" FB page didn't know any of this back story. All they knew was that the moderator had deleted my comment and article from the page. And as they realized this, their posts got increasingly angry. One even called Izzo "the page Nazi," which clearly went overboard.
“Michael Izzo, What happened to the post we were jawing on here for most of the evening? Are u responsible for its demise? If so, just say it. We will not let any air out of your tires or key your car although we are leaning in that direction."
"It is simple. Whoever deleted the post and the comments did not want Mr. Drier's opinions exposed or debated. Like I said earlier, most of the article was incontrovertible facts but some of the statements I objected to. We could have discussed them."
"This is insane! Why would anyone have the right to delete a post? What happened to freedom of speech and posting opinions on an open forum? Even in high school we were allowed to debate."
"Interesting that not one of those who moderate have felt the need to respond to these questions. Explaining why the post was deleted would seem to me to be the responsible, sensible action to take. If there are guidelines to follow pin them to the top of the page for all to see."
"Maybe Michael will see that history should not be censored."
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"We are adults and can scroll or respond. It was a great article."
“Those who forget or censor history have no future. He who does not learn from history is destined to repeat it."
"It's very nice that this page fosters friendship, joy and whatever but since the riots are a MAJOR part of Plainfield's history, there is no reason that should not be discussed HERE with other Plainfielders."
"So this site allows only "pleasantries" to be discussed?"
"This site is about growing up in Plainfield - memories - good or bad and our thoughts about them are all a part of nostalgia...Nostalgia is not always pleasant....Think of WW2.... Vietnam...etc. As someone said before, the riots were a HUGE part, not only in Plainfield, but surrounding communities and affected all of us profoundly...Discussion on the consequences and WHY we believe Plainfield is what it is now is also a part of the experience...Why censor? No one was promoting political leaders, policies or any of that ilk. We all had different opinions on why this happened... Lighten up!"
"It wasn't just an article, it was a whole stream if posts about Plainfield since and before the riots."
"We have been through this before. The people who set this group up want to discuss a lot of pleasant memories and ignore those they don't want to discuss or remember. I had a critical comment about the article but overall it was factual."
"This was censored although it was published in a national magazine. History is what makes us learn how to live in the present and the future. I don't think this should be censored. This was a time when the Police were replaced by the state. This was a time when the High School was surrounded by State Police with shotguns every 3 feet and surrounded the High School. This is the history of Plainfield, NJ."
"We are the sum total of all that happens to us in this life, good or bad, so yes.... Sometimes resurrecting old pains is cathartic. Just because you don't talk about it, doesn't make it "go away"...Every time I drive thru Plfd, I think of my youth and also the riots."
"I do believe that all of us have the option not to participate in discussions that are uncomfortable. There were no racist comments, no inflammatory pictures that I saw--merely people speaking about things that happened to them that they saw as racist. There were no racist words used. We all have our own definition of what is comfortable to speak about about. Again, if the discussion is uncomfortable for you, I suggest you not participate. We only grow and learn by discussing both the good and the bad."
"We are not children who need to be "monitored."
"I'm just reading this post, but was only about 4 yrs old when the riot took place all those years ago. Although I do not remember what most if you do, I do remember when my family received word that my cousin Bobby Williams had been shot and was near death. His long recovery is something I'll never forget because my parents, siblings and I would go visit with him. Imagine my shock earlier this year when I took a class for college and this very article came up to contribute to the proof if what happened in Plainfield's history and see my cousin's name... I guess we cannot get away from our past, but prayerfully the bad memories can be something we learn from in order to do better in our present and future."
"I must say that Mr. Dreier wrote a compelling article. My memory of that night, sitting on the stoop of the garden apts on Randolph, listening to the gun shots but not fearing for myself, but fearing for my friends. Yes, my Afro-American friends. What happened that night was awful and forever will be engraved in my brain. I thought that Peter was very thorough in the telling of the rise and fall of Plainfield. I was called a "N" lover and other negative things about my heritage. I was persecuted by teachers for various reasons. I remember the Plfd Country Club exclusivity and how Blacks and Jews were treated. There is so much hate in the world and so much sadness due to racial, religious and economic status reasons. People are killing other people all over the world for those reasons, it has gone on for eons, lest no one forget. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it and that is not a good thing. One day, just for one day, before I die, I would love to see all societies lay down their weapons and have a day of peace in all nations."
"Now I know why I left Plainfield...You all have a good night!"
Some people defended Izzo's decision to delete my comment and article.
“Though I believe in Freedom of Speech, I think that this particular topic is too raw for this FB page. The last thing I said in a post yesterday, is that I thought we should stop the thread & get along. It would have been nice had the thread "Died" on it's own, but....that didn't happen. It got all of us fired up & focusing on a terrible time in history & "reliving" our differences instead of loving the "OLD TIMES". Sometimes we need to be given a "TIME OUT". I, personally think it was the right thing to do, Michael Izzo."
"Why is it necessary to bring up and dwell upon those dark, scary days in Plainfield's history. Keep up the good work Michael Izzo."
"The originator or moderator of a group can and does have the right to delete...It is up to the members to remove themselves if they don't like the manner in which the moderator is moderating."
"If a group has an organizer or moderator, they have the right to shepherd the group as they see fit. This is not the only group on which this has occurred. We may not like it, but it is within their purview to do so.”
That last comment triggered a sharp response:
"Shepherd the group"? Really? We're responsible adults with a lot of varied opinions that should be expressed regardless of anyone disagreeing. To me it is a very narrow minded approach . We can learn a lot from one another by expressing our views about anything!"
Many of the comments, however, dealt with people's memories of Plainfield - before, during, and after the 1967 riots. Some talked about where they were when the riots broke out. Quite a few mentioned racism that they had personal experienced. Others lamented the city's "decline." Some blamed it on the rioters. Others on the city's white establishment in the 1960s. Some current residents talked about ongoing efforts to revitalize Plainfield.
This was exactly the kind of conversation I had hoped would happen, but Izzo nipped it in the bud. He removed the entire thread of discussion about the riots. As several people had commented, the most dramatic event in our hometown's history - a significant turning point in many of our lives - was now off-limits on a FB page called "I Grew Up in Plainfield, N.J.," thanks to Michael Izzo.
Eventually, after much prodding, Izzo posted a comment admitting that he was the moderator who had deleted my comment and article, although he didn't mention that he had also banned me from the site.
"This page is about sharing NOT politics," Izzo explained. "Bringing up riots and racism is an important topic that still holds merit, but it does not foster the sharing aspect of this page. Those wishing to air such topics have many other fora in which to argue over such matters. We also suffered a political bout with a supporter of the current mayor who has a ferocious opposition. This page is not about politics or arguments. It is about sharing friendship, personal sadness and great joy."
In a separate post, Izzo augmented his explanation: "We do not need to drag up unhappy events of 50 years ago, anymore than we need reminding of Kennedy's assassination by slo-mo graphics of his brains flying out of his head. Horror need not be relived. Facebook, social media formats, and many blogs are out there to discuss dismal topics and the fashionable politics of hate."
I hold no grudge against Michael Izzo. He seems like a decent enough guy with a bit of an authoritarian streak. Through Google, I discovered that Izzo is an avid biker who owns the Somerville Bicycle Shop and helped start the Hillsborough Velodrome. He is a veteran of the National Security Agency. I commend him for his physical fitness and his public service.
The protest from my fellow “I Grew Up in Plainfield” FB members – most of whom I didn’t and don’t know – was perfectly civil. No one threatened to boycott Izzo's businesses or, as one of the FB writers jokingly mentioned, let the air out of his tires. And guess what? The mini-rebellion got results – sort of. Without explanation, my “privileges” on the “I Grew Up in Plainfield” FB page were restored. But my original post, and link to my Nation article, were not. Fortunately, several others posted a link to my article, and it is still up there.
But I’m still concerned with the broader issue of who controls social media, which most people view as a force for more democratic discussion and debate.
The critic A.J. Liebling once wrote: "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Today, ownership of the mainstream media (TV, radio, daily newspapers) is highly concentrated in a few hands, but thanks to blogs, email, Facebook, and other social media, there are many more channels of communication that can potentially enhance our democracy. However, as some of the people who commented about this mini-controversy involving my deleted FB post noted, the ground rules are still evolving.
As one of the Plainfield FBers asked: Is there a handbook?
Finally, here is the comment I posted before it was removed:
"It has been interesting to read people's memories and views about growing up in Plainfield before and after the 1967 riots. Plainfield was a great place to grow up in the 1960s. Grillos. Grunings. Uncle Brucie (Morrow) coming to PHS for winning "principle of the year." Wow! But most white residents had little understanding of the widespread racism and discrimination that pervaded almost every aspect of life for African Americans - the schools (tracking, etc) and quite a few teachers, housing (lots of redlining, segregation, and discrimination), the police department (frequent use of the N-word on the police radio, lots of police abuse in the West End), employers, even Muhlenberg hospital. Plainfield wasn't unique; it faced the same problems that confronted many other cities. The closing of the Mack Truck plant, the exodus of middle class residents and businesses to the suburbs and malls, and the failure of the City Council to address the concerns of the black community all occurred BEFORE the 1967 riots. There are better ways to deal with injustice that riots, but when people are frustrated and angry, and see no alternative or hope, they sometimes resort to violence. I'm not justifying it, just explaining it. Nor does white racism justify racism against whites. I understand why people on this FB page feel nostalgic or angry about the so-called "good old days" in Plainfield before the riots. People's personal experiences count for a lot. But Plainfield is a good example of how forces both outside and inside cities combined to create a ticking time bomb that eventually exploded. I wrote this article in The Nation in 2007 about the riots. I know the article provoked a lot of controversy among past and current Plainfielders, but its analysis of what happened and why still holds up. The people who live in Plainfield now are working to improve the city and the schools against big odds, particularly the lack of adequate funding. I'm glad to know that there are some long-time Plainfielders who are part of that effort. I salute them."