July 8, 2019

Facebook and Hate Speech

I woke up this morning to discover that a comment I made in response to a post in a private Facebook group had been removed by Facebook. Facebook informed me that “This comment goes against our Community Standards on hate speech,” provided a link to the reputedly objectionable comment, and offered to review the removal decision. I immediately requested a review and am presently awaiting the result thereof.

My comment was in response to the posting of a Washington Post story, “Aided by a strong economy, Trump approval rises, but a majority also see him as ‘unpresidential.’” I was appalled that, in view of Trump’s ongoing outrageous behavior, his approval rating would actually go up. A number of group members wrote comments indicating that they shared my consternation. I added my two cents to the conversation with this comment:

Americans are idiots.

It did not occur to me, then or now, that this could be construed as an instance of hate speech. Moreover, I was bewildered that Facebook had taken any notice of the comment. Surely, not every comment on the site is read and evaluated by a live human being. No one in the group admitted to having reported my comment as objectionable, and it seems unlikely that anyone flagged it inadvertently. Almost certainly, Facebook software responded to my use of the word “idiots.”

Facebook’s policy on “Community Standards” includes quite specific guidelines set forth in a section titled “11. Hate Speech,” which I reproduce, in part, below:
We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation. We separate attacks into three tiers of severity, as described below.
Tier 2 attacks, which target a person or group of people who share any of the above-listed characteristics, where attack is defined as
  • Statements of inferiority or an image implying a person’s or a group’s physical, mental, or moral deficiency
    • Physical (including but not limited to “deformed,” “undeveloped,” “hideous,” “ugly”)
    • Mental (including but not limited to “retarded,” “cretin,” “low IQ,” “stupid,” “idiot”)
    • Moral (including but not limited to “slutty,” “fraud,” “cheap,” “free riders”)
  • Expressions of contempt or their visual equivalent, including (but not limited to)
    • “I hate”
    • “I don't like”
    • “X are the worst”
  • Expressions of disgust or their visual equivalent, including (but not limited to)
    • “Gross”
    • “Vile”
    • “Disgusting”
    • Cursing at a person or group of people who share protected characteristics
Apparently, Facebook thinks I attacked the mental facilities of all Americans. Obviously, however, context matters. To begin with, if my statement is taken literally (which no well-educated native speaker would do), It entails the following syllogism:

[All] Americans are idiots.
This statement was made by an American.
Therefore, the person who made the statement is an idiot.

And, in that case, the Facebook comment is beneath notice.

More to the point, the Facebook policy makes no room for figures of speech. Any gibbon would recognize my comment is deliberate exaggeration written to express my frustration with the imperviousness of Trump supporters to new and damaging information about their putative champion. Does Facebook intend to limit any hint of literary language on its site, demanding that every statement be literally true and inoffensive?

No doubt, Mark Zuckerberg is concerned with public dissatisfaction with Facebook. The site showed indifference to Russia-based posts clearly intended to affect our most recent presidential election. More recently, a Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents was revealed to contain material that many citizens would find objectionable and that, seemingly, should have been the subject of hate speech investigations by Facebook, given its stated policy. Political pressure for the site to “do something” about these apparent problems is mounting, and it is not difficult to have some sympathy for the people trying to define what that “something” should be.

I am a free speech advocate. I recognize that Facebook is not constrained by the First Amendment, but, whether it intended it or not, Facebook has become something of a public square, where Americans have an expectation that they may express their thoughts freely. I worry about Facebook’s becoming our national nanny and censor. The antidote to “bad” speech is more, not less speech. In fact, I think the very idea of hate speech is problematic.

Facebook can hardly facilitate public dialog if it insists on (or is being pressured into) exercising censorship. A fundamental problem with the site, however, is its use of a private, inscrutable algorithm to determine what members see. I have no idea why I never see posts from some Facebook friends, yet seemingly see all the posts from others. The company is not really interested in promoting dialog but in maximizing “engagement” to expose members to as many incoming-producing ads as possible.

I don’t know what Facebook should do about Russian interference in our elections other than to make the sources of questionable posts transparent. As for the obnoxious posts from Border Patrol agents, it is not important to suppress them; it is important to know that they may indicate the existence of a cancer within an important government agency.

It has been more than a full day since I was notified that my comment offended community standards. I am still waiting for adjudication from the Facebook cognoscenti.

Update, 7/11/2019. Today, I received notification of the result of Facebook’s review of my comment. The basic message is that Facebook hasn’t changed its corporate mind and  will countenance no further appeals. In particular, I received this notification:


Note that “Accept Decision” was pre-checked in the message and could not be unchecked. When I investigated the possibilities, the message declared that I had accepted the decision, and the opportunity to provide “Feedback on Our Community Standards” disappeared. I had intended to submit the URL of this blog post as feedback. I will try to communicate that to Facebook some other way, but the kangaroo court has spoken.

This incident makes clear why we don’t want Facebook as our on-line nanny, a view I intend to express to my representatives in Congress. My comment was in no way hate speech, nor did it offend the standards of the private Facebook where I posted it. Clearly, absolute rules of what is and is not acceptable speech on Facebook is subject to absurd conclusions and suppression of rational discussion.

Maybe all Americans are not idiots. Perhaps everyone who works for Facebook is.

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