This is not an isolated incident; in fact, the suspension, deletion and censoring of atheist social media accounts and posts, particularly ex-Muslim atheist accounts and posts, is commonplace. In 2017, Armin’s widely followed Facebook page, Atheist Republic, along with Ex-Muslims of North America and 10 other atheist pages were temporarily blocked by Facebook. In 2014, large Romanian atheist Facebook pages were targeted and removed, and in 2015 a large Indian atheist Facebook page was removed.
I could go on to list a litany of examples of atheist pages and posts being censored on Twitter and Facebook, and I myself have received threats from Twitter’s legal team concerning posts that were considered heavily blasphemous toward the religion of Islam. There are examples of atheist posts, pages and accounts which offend Christianity being censored by the large private social media companies, but there does appear to be a more acute crackdown on material that may be deemed offensive to Muslims, because Allah is almighty, but nonetheless in dire need of assistance from large social media companies when it comes to protecting his petulant and pugnacious little feelings. But given that Allah isn’t really real – let’s face it – it is the feelings of those who believe in him and his dead, pedophilic and pathologically violent prophet that social media companies seek to shield from expressions that come into conflict with their religious sensibilities.
Legally speaking, this form of censorship is not an issue of the human right to freedom of expression being infringed upon, because these social media platforms are private companies and can choose to host and delete whom they please, but practically speaking it is most definitely an issue affecting freedom of expression. Given that only a handful of social media platforms dominate and hold a monopoly over global social media communication, the targeting of individuals and groups can have dramatically detrimental effects and consequences concerning the human right of a vulnerable member of one of the world’s most disliked minorities to express themselves as an individual. In a letter addressed to Facebook’s administrators in 2017, a group of atheists, humanists and secularists wrote:
Following what appears to be a coordinated reporting and flagging campaigns, multiple Facebook Groups and Pages are routinely restricted or shut down. Each time, Facebook claims that the restriction or removal is due to violations of its terms of service and community standards. However, each time, no details are given as to which standards are violated. Sometimes, the decision is overturned after appeals and campaigns, sometimes it is not.
Online spaces like Facebook are the last refuge for many atheists and secularists in the Muslim world. Apostates are persecuted by governments, threatened by fundamentalist theocrats, and murdered by vigilantes all over the Muslim world and beyond. Even in the West, many apostates hide their lack-of-faith from friends and family for fear of retribution and social ostracization.
The internet, however, has provided this vulnerable minority with a sense of community that can be impossible to attain in their everyday lives. Atheists can share their beliefs, spreading their ideas and literature in anonymity – considered by many to be a key factor in the rise of atheist visibility in the Muslim world. Facebook in particular has been a boon to community-building efforts among persecuted minorities around the world. In fact, the greater the persecution faced by the group, the more vital the online connectivity and activism.
However, even online, our groups maintain a precarious position, as coordinated attacks using Facebook’s reporting tools are simple and effective. The same social media which empowers religious minorities is susceptible to abuse by religious fundamentalists to enforce what are essentially the equivalent of online blasphemy laws. A simple English-language search reveals hundreds of public Groups and Pages on Facebook explicitly dedicated to this purpose – giving their members easy-to-follow instructions on how to report public groups and infiltrate private ones.
I can personally attest to the vitally important role regarding the welfare and human rights of vulnerable atheists and secularists that atheist social media accounts can play, as I have personally participated in what we may aptly call the ‘Internet Underground Railway’, which has helped rescue Muslim and ex-Muslim men and (predominantly) women from vicious and inhumane Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and equally barbaric quasi-theocracies like Pakistan.
But it isn’t just ex-Muslims who stand to suffer under the current religious-leaning social media regimes, it is also LGBTQ Christians, whose own families are doing their utmost to drive them to suicide, women and men tangled in the toxic and noxious webs of fundamentalist religious families and social networks, whose only respite from the oppressive insanity of their day-to-day existence is a firebrand atheist article or meme. For the few moments each day these prisoners are paroled from their social theocracies, they can communicate with fellow atheists, they can laugh, breathe, exhale, and at the very least enjoy the human right of being who they truly are as individuals, if only online. However, given that there are no laws in place to protect such people, because, again, social media companies are private entities who can choose whom they host and decline to host, such vulnerable people are left helpless, with neither recourse nor alternative avenues for expression and communication.
So then, how can we resolve this dilemma? To whom do we address our concerns? Atheists are still a global minority, and large media platforms would be silly, commercially speaking, to sacrifice a large market base for a small one. In other words, it does not make commercial sense to protect atheist pages and accounts given that the majority of these social media companies’ users are religious. Perhaps then, what we need to do is appeal to those who report atheist posts, pages and accounts.
Dear Religious Reporter,
Why do you report atheists? Have you ever really sat down and analysed why it is that you feel the need to do this? Is your faith so flimsy that you would blaspheme in such a manner to render your god a passive passenger to your perceived supremacy above “His” supreme will and power? How presumptuous of you to act in a way that displays to your deity, and the world, that you have absolutely no faith whatsoever in “His” capacity to defend “Himself” and his flocks from the petty attacks of mere mortals on social media! Why don’t you trust “Him”? O ye of little faith! Do you believe that “His” omnipotent plan can be foiled by a social media meme depicting your favourite religious character in a less-than flattering light? Or is there something more dreadfully threatening to your faith beneath and behind your proactive reporting of atheists on social media? Could it be that the cognitive dissonance you experience when seeing an atheist post causes you to question your antiquated and embarrassingly ridiculous worldview, and that this psychological discomfort is beyond the scope of your shallow faith to comfort and assuage? Do you only report the posts, pages and people for which your dissonance-affected mind is incapable of producing a satisfying rationalisation/excuse? If you knew that by you reporting atheist pages you not only hurt real people by hindering their ability to communicate and express themselves, but that it also revealed to the world the feeble nature of your faith, would you still continue to behave like a wounded and faithless little child?
I do sincerely hope you give some of these questions some serious thought, because given the trend the globe is experiencing toward atheism and secularism, you may wish to be very careful about setting a precedent of censorship, because it will not be too long until you are the global minority and private social media companies will have a new, more rationally-minded and godless market base to protect.
Edit Note: The original piece mistakenly included Ali A. Rizvi’s Twitter account as one that had been suspended. This was an error.
Michael A. Sherlock is an atheist author and the founder and
co-chairperson, Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists.