As a way of celebrating Independence Day, The Vindicator thought it would be appropriate to publish the Declaration of Independence on Facebook. To make the reading of it more manageable online, the outlet broke the famous founding document into twelve "bite-sized" segments and posted one a day over a period of 12 days, ending on July 4. But after posting the tenth segment, The Vindicator received a notice from Facebook informing them that the post "goes against our standards on hate speech" and had been blocked.
After the outlet complained about the censorship, Facebook restored the post on the evening of July 3, explaining that its automated "Community Standards" checker had incorrectly flagged the post. While Facebook's relatively prompt reversal was welcomed, the incident highlights how information is handled on the platform and what types of expression can be blocked.
Below is the passage of the Declaration of Independence (paragraphs 27-31) that contained language deemed to be "hate speech":
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Here's how The Vindicator's Managing Editor Casey Stinnett first responded after learning that this particular passage had been blocked:
While The Vindicator cannot be certain exactly what triggered Facebook’s filtering program, the editor suspects it was most likely the phrase “Indian Savages.”
Perhaps had Thomas Jefferson written it as “Native Americans at a challenging stage of cultural development” that would have been better. Unfortunately, Jefferson, like most British colonists of his day, did not hold an entirely friendly view of Native Americans.
Although, to be honest, there is a good deal in that passage that could be thought hateful.
The removal of the post was an automated action. If any human being working at Facebook were to review it, no doubt the post would be allowed, and the editor has searched for a means of contacting Facebook for an explanation or a opportunity to appeal the post’s removal, but it does not appear the folks at Facebook want anyone contacting them. Or, at least, they do not make it easy. The Vindicator has sent Facebook a feedback message. That being the only way found so far to contact the company.
Stinnett noted that Facebook's Vice President of Global Policy Management posted a notice on the platform's newsroom in April that the company would be creating a process by which people can appeal decisions to remove user content, but "no such review request option appeared on Facebook’s notice to The Vindicator."
In an update on July 3, The Vindicator announced that the post had been restored and published Facebook's response to their complaint.
"It looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards," Facebook wrote in response. "We want to apologize and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action."
Stinnett thanked Facebook for correcting the mistake, saying they "never doubted Facebook would fix it, but neither did we doubt the usefulness of our fussing about it a little."
The editor made a point of defending Facebook's ability as a business corporation to restrict use of its services "as long as those restrictions do not violate any laws" and underscored that The Vindicator uses the platform for free, making complaints feel somewhat "silly." However, the temporary blocking of content, the editor noted, highlighted just how dependent the outlet has become on Facebook for traffic, like so many other sites.
"This is frustrating, but your editor is a historian, and to enjoy the study of history a person must love irony," concluded Stinnett. "It is a very great irony that the words of Thomas Jefferson should now be censored in America."