Censored by Facebook

Refugee solidarity protest. Turin, 15 December.

Her eyes were filled with fear, and her breath reeked of alcohol. “Andare, andare,” the activist yelled, telling me to leave. Unable to figure out why I shrugged my shoulders out of surprise. I was on her side, after all. “Your camera,” she replied, touching my Pentax. “Go.”

A college age-looking kid walking beside us could tell I wasn’t Italian and added in heavily accented English, “We don’t want no pictures. I’m sorry.” I nodded my head and reluctantly complied. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me to leave a demonstration.

Every time I’d motioned to take a photograph, someone had asked me not to. The last shot I’d made was five minutes after arriving at the demonstration two hours earlier when I’d aroused the ire of the protestors by photographing a banner criticising Italy’s new immigration policy.

Mindful of all the looks I was getting for carrying a DSLR, albeit a small one, I’d quickly switched to my iPhone, with which I took two shots, using a photo application whose images can’t be immediately accessed by someone insisting on inspecting my mobile’s photo library.

I always fall back on it whenever I anticipate being asked to delete my photos, whose legality is of less relevance than the discomfort my subjects feel at being photographed at a demonstration

But, no matter how many reporters have replaced their cameras with iPhones, there’s no comparing their output to even that of a midrange camera. Some mobiles have better cameras than others. However, the ratio of bad to good is still uneven. When they’re bad, they’re awful.

Reviewing my iPhone photos after I’d returned, home, I could see that one I’d posted to Facebook, with a comment on the demo, was predictably subpar, so I decided to replace it with a sharper one from my DSLR. The post was getting a lot of likes from other journalists and friends, making me feel self-conscious of the photograph’s deficits.

Marching for human rights. Turin, 15 December.

But, after deleting the image, and attempting to upload a new one, I was notified I couldn’t make the change because the post itself was gone. I hadn’t accidentally deleted it. Facebook had taken the initiative itself, and hadn’t notified me, or asked me to edit the original in any way.

For anyone who follows Facebook’s clumsy efforts to delete user content, this isn’t a big surprise. Quite frequently, other FB users, or an algorithm, will flag objectionable content, and moderators will simply remove it. This had never happened to me, though. I was surprised.

Luckily, I still had the app open with the original post on my iPad, so I took a picture of it with my mobile, and put it back on Facebook, explaining what had happened. Another journalist queried me on what I thought the trigger was, that led to the post’s removal. I replied that it was probably because I’d noted the presence of plainclothes cops at the demonstration:

At a pro-refugee rally in Torino. Ska, hardcore & hip-hop being broadcast by a bike PA. 30% of the crowd are plainclothes cops with the obvious ear devices, the others anarchists & riot control. They all hate my camera.

I was surprised by the speed with which I concluded it was the plainclothes reference. But, having reported on demonstrations for years, and having edited even more articles about them at the publications I’ve worked at, I’m also aware of how sensitive cops can be about getting outed.

As I noted in the post though, their presence was rather obvious. Few signs of law enforcement officers are more transparent than the clear plastic curled cabling of ear pieces. Though they can be affixed less conspicuously, they’re always a dead giveaway for cops.

Why then request a takedown from something like Facebook, when all of the protestors at the demonstration, as well as passers-by, could see who was present and what they were doing? Saying it online may amplify things, but it was no different then what was being said on the street.

‘Against the security and immigration decree’. Piazza Solferino, 15 December.

Without a doubt, the takedown instilled a feeling of fear in my heart. Italian law enforcement had reached out to a publishing platform in the United States, in another language, asking its owners to censor an Israeli national reporting in English about attending a demonstration in Turin. One can only begin to imagine the contradictory number of legal conflicts created by the request.

Any feeling of frustration I’d felt being asked by the demonstrators to leave dissipated by that point. If their own security services were willing to seek them out online and censor their self-reporting on their own demonstrations in Italy, no wonder they didn’t want to be photographed.

Ironically, the anti-migrant decree they were protesting – the recently adopted Law on Immigration and Security, abolishing humanitarian protection status for refugees, making it easier to strip naturalised immigrants of citizenship – was sponsored by a coalition government known for its promotion of Facebook as a people’s news platform, as the alternative to ‘fake’ news media.

Indeed, few governments in Europe have gone to greater lengths to attack the press, and push Facebook as an alternative more than the two parties leading Italy today, the far-right Lega Nord, and the nominally left Movimento 5 Stelle. Not so ironically, Facebook is the main tool used by both parties, to market themselves, not the news media.

In this instance, a journalist was using Facebook the same way that Deputy Prime Ministers Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord) and Luigi Di Maio (M5S) as a publishing platform, without the ‘unfair’ filter of the press. But the journalist was censored by Facebook, whereas Salvini and Di Maio are not.

It’s an entirely predictable conundrum for politicians who rail against the media because they want to replace it with themselves. When it comes to press freedoms, that’s been the case for a millennia. It’s not the media that’s the problem. It’s the diversity of opinion it represents.

Advertising the demo. Porta Palazzo, 8 December.

Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.