Have you ever had Facebook delete one of your posts or even temporarily suspend your account over "hate speech?"
Maybe you or a friend put up a post about Black Lives Matter or racist white people and discovered it gone. You might have wondered why Facebook was doing this to you, while allowing the alt-right and actual Nazis to post as they please.
You might have wondered if you were imagining things, or if this sort of thing was only happening to you.
Well, ProPublica has the receipts, and it turns out, it's not your imagination or happenstance.
After reviewing several of Facebook’s internal documents that outline the tech giant's censorship rules, ProPublica discovered that those rules do little to protect minorities and those protesting racism from censorship.
The problem stems from how Facebook decided to censor itself. Its censorship rules revolve around trying to eliminate nudity, violence and hate speech. The first two are pretty easy: if someone posts a naked selfie, it's gone; if someone posts a video of them shooting someone, it's gone.
But pinning down exactly what constitutes hate speech is more complicated.
The company has devised a list of "protected categories."
People who fall into these categories are protected. However, people who fall into subsets of these categories are not.
To help its censors to understand this system, Facebook created a training program, one that includes a quiz to test its censors' understanding. One question follows. See if you can get it right.
"Black children," right?
Wrong. It's "white men." (Isn't it always?)
Why though? Well, while women and black people are protected, drivers and children are not.
Children are not?!
Nope, children are not. Facebook documents clearly say that people are not to be protected based on age. So if you're an elder, you get no extra respect, and if you're a child, no extra protections.
And while women drivers are often under attack (in some countries, literally), driving is something you do; it could even be called an occupation, which is something else that has no special protections. Also not protected are religions, social classes and appearances.
What's with these rules?
Facebook sees itself as a global service, and on that service, it believes, all users are equal.
Here in the U.S., we have affirmative action to protect the marginalized. But Facebook refuses to acknowledge that marginalization exists. Under its rules, a wealthy white man in France deserves the same treatment as a poor black man in Indiana.
And that's true — each man is just as good as the other.
And yet, when was the last time a white French man was summarily gunned down by police during a routine traffic stop?
University of Maryland professor of law Danielle Citron hones in on this with her criticism of Facebook's rules. "Incorporating this color-blindness idea which is not in the spirit of why we have equal protection," she told ProPublica, adding that Facebook's methods "protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”
Officials from Facebook say that they understand that their rules are imperfect. But the company's head of global policy management, Monika Bickert was less than apologetic about that fact. "That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is okay to share,” she said.
Accepting that technology isn't infallible, Facebook's critics argue that current policy lacks nuance.
For example, Morgan State University journalism professor Stacy Patton once had a post removed in which she asked why “it’s not a crime when white freelance vigilantes and agents of ‘the state’ are serial killers of unarmed black people, but when black people kill each other then we are ‘animals’ or ‘criminals.’”
Patton's account was blocked for three days, and that post was deleted.
And yet when the House of Representative's Clay Higgins (R-LA) wrote of Muslims, “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all," nothing happened to him or his page.
How is a call for slaughter okay, but a post that questions how we address killing not?
Well, Higgins wrote about a religion (not protected), a subgroup (radicalized Muslims, not protected), and arguably, a political group (again, radicalized Muslims, again, not protected).
On the other hand, Patton wrote about race and ethnicity, white people and black people, both of whom are protected.
“It’s such emotional violence,” said Patton. “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.’”
It makes one wonder: how committed are you to fighting hate speech when much of your energy is used up fighting those who are on your side?