Facebook Tightens Policies on Guns, Stirs Free Speech Concerns

News, Rights

Facebook announced last Wednesday that it would change its policies, and those of Instagram (bought by Facebook in 2012 for approximately $1 billion), regarding firearms. They will restrict certain posts and ads promoting guns for sale. The social media sites are getting flak from gun rights groups, many of whom see this it censorship.

New Facebook, Instagram Policies Aim to Reduce Illegal Gun Sales

Facebook and Instagram are not e-commerce sites, yet both have been used to post information on firearms for sale, including those that do not require a background check.

A change.org petition from gun reform group Moms Demand Action (MDA) called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to stop allowing Facebook and Instagram to facilitate illegal gun sales. Officials from Facebook met with representatives of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition founded by mayors after the Sandy Hook shooting, to discuss how they could address the issue.

After the sites changed their policies, MDA celebrated: “These are real, common-sense policies – and they’re going to make Facebook safer for all users.”

The “common-sense policies” include:

  • Facebook will delete posts that offer to sell firearms without a background check, and all posts that offer guns for sale across state lines
  • Users will be able to flag pages and posts they believe are promoting illegal gun sales, and Facebook will keep reporting potential threats to law enforcement agencies
  • Individual users and groups must acknowledge the laws and agree to abide by them, and targeted ads will give information on gun laws
  • Users under 18 will not be able to see posts and pages offering or facilitating sales of firearms

Facebook Unfairly Targeting Firearms?

But many guns rights advocates don’t find these policies to be “common-sense” at all and doubt that they can reduce crime in a meaningful way. They also argue that while it’s possible people use Facebook and Instagram to help them buy and sell guns illegally, the majority of users are law-abiding. (The fact that some of the guns for sale don’t require a background check doesn’t make them illegal; background checks are required when guns are bought and sold through licensed dealers, but not when they are bought and sold in private transactions. But it is illegal to sell guns to a minor or a felon, for example.)

“As long as people follow federal, state, and local laws, they should be free to participate in the Facebook and Instagram communities,” says Brandon Combs in his own change.org petition, now over 12,000 signatures strong. Like others unhappy with the changes, he sees this as 1st and 2nd Amendment issues.

But this is not the first time Facebook has restricted gun-related content. Before the recent changes, its policy was to ban ads and sponsored stories promoting firearms and other weapons. It also restricted photos of weapons that were pointed directly at the viewer. And it has not only prohibited content related to weapons, but to tobacco, counterfeit goods, fake documents, pornography, and inflammatory and derogatory content.

Facebook and Free Speech

Facebook can likely withstand the blowback, even from so large a group as gun rights advocates. After all, it hears complaints from users around the globe if it so much as makes a minor change to the interface. It does not claim to (nor is it obligated to) give its users a place for unfettered free speech, but seeks to “balance concerns about free expression and community respect.”

“Facebook is a private company,” admits Stanton McCandlish, a Facebook user unhappy with the new policies. “I guess if they want to have restrictive policies that alienate users, they can do that.”