Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Day That Will Live In Infamy

I would imagine that most people that frequent the blogosphere are very aware of the Internet networking site MySpace. You should also be aware of the fact that in 2005, MySpace was purchased by the conglomeration run by Rupert Murdock (owner of News Corporation), best known for being the owner of Fox News (Faux News or Fox Noise amongst liberals).

If you are reading this then, you need to be aware of the former MySpace group: Atheist and Agnostic Group. Why is this of interest? It was the largest network/collection/community of nonbelievers in the world! At its peak, the A and A group had over 35,000 members and was one of the largest groups in the category of religion and belief on MySpace and also quite large overall. Perhaps you have noticed that I kept using the past tense when talking about this group.

This in because, on the first of January, 2008, the group was shut down by MySpace. I know this because of other blogs, but also because I was a member of that group. I had been inactive for some time, and perhaps that helped this happen to some degree.

I knew the people in the group well, those that were active participants. In fact, in April 2007, a number of us met in Boston for the annual humanist convention at Harvard University. So, I personally came to know the moderator of the Atheist and Agnostic Group, a Mr. Bryan J. Pesta, Ph.D. in cognitive science. A great guy who went by the nickname of Fearless Group Leader (FGL), but also having the screen name of "An Inordinate Fondness of Beetles." I hope you get the joke.

What is less funny is that the group had been shut down before, before I had joined the group in late 2005. Fortunately, FGL personally knew the creator of MySpace, Tom, who returned the group to its former state and promised to keep it alive. That was before the sale of MySpace to News Corp. In November 2007, the group was again shut down, came back to life, and was again (and perhaps permanently) on January 1, 2008, five minutes after notifying FGL of the decision to close the group.

I will now let Bryan say the rest, as he has posted on his MySpace profile page. I do this in case the page is also lost in the near future by other groups.

Update: 1/30/08, 10:00 p.m. EST.

Thanks sincerely to all who sent emails or forwarded the press release (real big thanks to the Secular Student Alliance and the Humanist Chaplain from Harvard). Myspace hasn't yet responded, and our group is still deleted.

Short FAQ based on some of the emails I got:

Q1) How do you know the group was deleted for religious reasons?

A1)I have no smoking gun. I cannot produce any internal Myspace memo saying "crush the heathens".

However, I assert that our group's history up to its recent deletion (1/1/8) establishes a prima facie case that we were deleted for religious reasons:

Note first that I ran the group for almost 3 years, and was very careful to not violate any TOS.

We were deleted two years ago due to complaints from a group called the "Christian Crusaders." They would search Myspace for profiles they found offensive, and then mass complain to customer service.

Their strategy was to send so many emails to customer service that someone, somewhere at Myspace would delete the profile or group.

It worked. They were able to get us deleted for a few weeks til myspace restored us (pre-news corp; Tom Anderson, himself posted to our group offering to protect us). The "Christian Crusaders" also got many other groups and profiles deleted, including a large pro abortion group.

Three months ago, my account was hacked. The hacker took control of the group and renamed it "Jesus is love".

It took almost a month of constant emailing to Myspace just to get them to restore the group. I lost my profile (3000 friends; dozens of blogs), and the hacker banned many regular users.

Banning on a Myspace group is oddly permanent / can't be undone. So, I sent more requests asking Myspace to un-ban my regulars.

I got an email back-- finally; after about 3 weeks of requests for help-- saying "thank you for the information. We have scheduled the group for deletion."

Literally 5 minutes later, the group was deleted. I think it's ironic that Myspace's response to my persistent and sincere request for help was to delete the group!

I hope that puts our deletion in context. Add to that, the biggest xtian group here was deleted not too long ago (post news corp) and Myspace Tom personally restored it.

Do I think Myspace is an evil atheist hating conspiracy-- no. Do I think an agent of Myspace deleted my group because it was an atheist group. Yes.

I realize this is circumstantial evidence; but I think the case outlined above is strong enough to warrant my conclusion, and I am waiting to see if Myspace replies.

Q2) You realize that Myspace is privately owned; you have no right to free speech there; they can delete content at will?

A2) I do; but I think Myspace deleting atheist groups is equivalent to a restaurant refusing to serve minorities. Myspace provides a free service, yet it benefits tremendously ($$$) only because users provide content. As a for-profit, I suspect Myspace has some duty of equal protection to all members of protected classes. If Myspace deleted the largest African American group here, no one would tolerate that. Why should we tolerate it for any minority group?

I’m not trying to be dramatic. My experience is nothing like the typical civil rights violation, but I believe it is nonetheless a violation. I’m not sure where the line is drawn between trivial violations and ones-worth-fighting for. I personally think this one’s worth fighting for.

I feel our group had value; we helped give a misunderstood (and often despised) minority a sense of community. The fact that 35,000 people took the proactive step of joining the group (even if most never posted) suggests that it had value. The emails I got today from regulars and strangers suggests that it had value.

Personally, the three years I invested in maintaining the group (and the blogs on my deleted profile) had value to me. So, I think trying to get the group back is a rational investment of my time.

Further, I’m not asking for a march on the capital. I just want our group back.

***

Press release!

January 21, 2008
For Release: Immediately Upon Receipt
Contact: Bryan J. Pesta, Ph.D.,
216-687-4749 b.pesta@csuohio.edu

Myspace Deletes Largest Atheist Group in the World.

Cleveland, OH.— Social networking cite, Myspace.com, panders to religious intolerants by deleting atheist users, groups and content.

Early this month, Myspace again deleted the “Atheist and Agnostic Group (35,000 members). This deletion, due largely to complaints from people who find atheism offensive, marks the second time Myspace has cancelled the group since November 2007.

What’s unique in this case is that the Atheist and Agnostic Group was the largest collection of organized atheists in the world. The group had its own Wikipedia entry, and in April won the Excellence in Humanist Communication Award (2007) from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and The Secular Student Alliance.

“Myspace refuses to undelete the group, although it never violated any terms of service,” said Bryan Pesta, Ph.D., the group’s moderator. “When the largest Christian group was hacked, Myspace’s Founder, Tom Anderson, personally restored the group, and promised to protect it from future deletions.”

“It is an outrage if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the world’s largest social networking site tolerate discrimination against atheists and agnostics-- and if this situation goes unresolved I’ll have little choice but to believe they do,” said Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University. News Corporation, Murdoch’s global media corporation which also includes Fox News, purchased MySpace in 2005.

“My personal profile was deleted as well, and despite weeks of emails to customer service, plus a petition signed by 500 group members, Myspace won’t budge. I think these actions send a clear message to the 30 million godless people in America (and to businesses whose money was spent displaying ads on our group) that we are not welcome on Myspace,” said Pesta.

For a Wikipedia article on the now defunct atheist and agnostic group, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheist_and_Agnostic_Group.

For links to Pesta’s defunct group and profile, visit http://www.myspace.com/aiffb.

###

Needs restoring: Old profile: id=1120061 Old Group: id=100002606
(Link)

Here are some further links:
http://www.secularstudents.org/node/1933

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheist_and_Agnostic_Group

http://www.thenewhumanism.org/?page_id=13
http://www.cleveland.com/plaindealer/stories/index.ssf?/base/living-0/1201772086310820.xml&coll=2

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/01/should_i_go_or_should_i_stay.php

It is also interesting to note that the Wikipedia page on the group was edited by a person named GravityExNihilo, who was a member of the group, and not an atheist if that was still the case in December 2007, first wrote about the attacks in December of 2007. Further edits have taken place.

This whole thing burns me. It was a great group, discussing rather low topics (the Boos Thread was particularly long) to rather intellectual discussions (such as the differences between potential and actual infinities and how they may pertain to a deity when applying Russell's Paradox from set theory). The people I met were wonderful in person, and even though many others were not the most amiable in the forums, where still genuinely good people. And now they are being discriminated against.

I want to avoid slippery slope arguments, but if News Corp/MySpace can feel justified in shutting down this group, what other places are atheists not going to be allowed to traverse on the Internet in large numbers? We have all already seen how other groups have tried to use legal muscle to try and silence non-theistic and rational voices, such as with Creation Science Evangelism and the Disco Institute I mentioned previously. Obvously YouTube is also willing to let such materials be taken down. This with the growing efforts to force Intelligent Design into public schools, the Institute for Creation Research trying to get a legitimate degree program in Texas, and not to mention candidates having to pass ipso facto religious tests for office and even promoting changing the Constitution in order to have it conform to Biblical beliefs (thank you Mike Huckabee); all this is becoming rather frightening. I don't worry for my personal safety, but such a reduction in the ability to freely express oneself and to inquire freely is not something that should be tolerated.

Will the group be restored? It may take a lot of prodding. A letter with 500 signatures apparently did nothing to make the operators of MySpace think twice about the decision. It seems obvious to me that it was not an unbiased decision and likely a religiously motivated one. After all, the people of Fox News are conservative in most every sense of the word, including in Christian values/beliefs.

Should it not be seen as odd what is happening here in another sense. According to the Book of Acts, the Disciples were given the gift of tongues, able to speak any language. Apparently, this was a misreporting on the author's part--the gift was not tongues but the ability to stop the tongues of others. When it comes to spreading dogma, this is just as effective and desired.

I hope anyone that reads this makes some noise. Write letters to MySpace; make blog posts; produce YouTube videos, tell a friend. Just get the word out. Also, protesting in keeping youself away from News Corp products may also be a good idea. I think deleting MySpace pages is a good idea, as well as not watching Fox News (suck it Billo!).

At least I feel safe enough on blogger.com. It is under Google, and they have a simple slogan: Don't be evil. Hopefully, that policy is not based on rules of Leviticus (see Deuteronomy 13).

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