An investigation published yesterday (June 28) by ProPublica claims that the world’s biggest social media company—and its convoluted censorship policy—may disproportionately hurt people from marginalized groups.
The longform piece cites images and text from what it calls “a trove of internal documents” from Facebook that discuss the company’s rules and algorithms for tracking posts that, if reported, can result in censorship. This content varies widely in scope—livestreams of police killings, White nationalist threats, critiques against a country’s military occupation of disputed land, and “fake news” figure among them. The article covers not just the rules’ contextual implementation, but where they interface with First Amendment rights, corporate control of a major communications platform and Facebook’s relationship with world governments. Here are three must-read quotes that point to censorship of content concerning race:
- “One document trains content reviewers on how to apply the company’s global hate speech algorithm. The slide identifies three groups: female drivers, Black children and White men. It asks: Which group is protected from hate speech? The correct answer: White men.
“The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at ‘protected categories’—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about ‘subsets’ of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and Black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected.”
“Facebook users who don’t mince words in criticizing racism and police killings of racial minorities say that their posts are often taken down. Two years ago, Stacey Patton, a journalism professor at historically Black Morgan State University in Baltimore, posed a provocative question on her Facebook page. She asked why ‘it’s not a crime when White freelance vigilantes and agents of “the stat” are serial killers of unarmed Black people, but when Black people kill each other then we are “animals” or “criminals.”
“Although it doesn’t appear to violate Facebook’s policies against hate speech, her post was immediately removed, and her account was disabled for three days. Facebook didn’t tell her why. ‘My posts get deleted about once a month,’ said Patton, who often writes about racial issues. She said she also is frequently put in Facebook ‘jail’—locked out of her account for a period of time after a posting that breaks the rules.
“ ‘It’s such emotional violence,’ Patton said. ‘Particularly as a Black person, we’re always having these discussions about mass incarceration, and then here’s this fiber-optic space where you can express yourself. Then you say something that some anonymous person doesn’t like and then you’re in “jail.”’
“Among posts that Facebook didn’t delete were Donald Trump’s comments on Muslims. Days after the Paris attacks, Trump, then running for president, posted on Facebook ‘calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.’
“Candidate Trump’s posting—which has come back to haunt him in court decisions voiding his proposed travel ban—appeared to violate Facebook’s rules against ‘calls for exclusion’ of a protected religious group. [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg decided to allow it because it was part of the political discourse, according to people familiar with the situation.
“However, one person close to Facebook’s decision-making said Trump may also have benefited from the exception for sub-groups. A Muslim ban could be interpreted as being directed against a sub-group, Muslim immigrants, and thus might not qualify as hate speech against a protected category.”
Read “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children” in full here.