In a recent case, a Facebook user in Iran posted “death to Khamenei”, which the platform removed as a violation of its policy against threats and incitement. Facebook ultimately overturned the decision on the grounds that the speech, while contravening its rules, was newsworthy. Yet the company’s Oversight Board offered a distinct rationale for allowing the post: “death to Khamenei”wasn’t a threat or an incitement at all, but rather a rhetorical expression of criticism, disdain, or disgust. Who was right? Drawing on longstanding distinctions in the philosophy of language, we argue that the answer depends on whether platform rules should primarily target an utterance’s illocutionary force or instead its perlocutionary effects. Using this case study to trace broader lessons for the proper governance of online speech, we argue that platforms’ rules should primarily target illocutionary force, only considering perlocutionary effects in cases where illocutionary force is ambiguous.
Co-authored with Sarah Fisher. A link to the published version will be posted here; please contact if you’d like a copy.