Facebook will begin policing “hate speech” against disadvantaged minorities more aggressively than “hate speech” directed at others, including white Americans and males, according to a series of internal documents obtained by The Washington Post, reversing what the social media platform’s “race-blind” practices.
Proposed changes would involve a more aggressive, automatic moderating system that could “get better” at detecting what the documents refer to as the “worst of the worst” in “hate speech:” “slurs directed at Blacks, Muslims, people of more than one race, the LGBTQ community and Jews.”
The Post states that the previous “hate speech” policies appeared to result in the company “being more vigilant about removing slurs lobbed against White users while flagging and deleting innocuous posts by people of color on the platform.”
“In the first phase of the project, which was announced internally to a small group in October, engineers said they had changed the company’s systems to deprioritize policing contemptuous comments about ‘Whites,’ ‘men’ and ‘Americans,'” the Post reports. “Facebook still considers such attacks to be hate speech, and users can still report it to the company. However, the company’s technology now treats them as ‘low-sensitivity’ — or less likely to be harmful — so that they are no longer automatically deleted by the company’s algorithms. That means roughly 10,000 fewer posts are now being deleted each day, according to the document.”
Civil rights activists have been pressuring Facebook to adopt a more aggressive stance toward so-called “hate speech” on its platform, demanding an “enforcement regime that takes power and historical dynamics into account,” according to one activist involved in pushing the social media network to take historical oppression into account when moderating speech.
“We know that hate speech targeted towards underrepresented groups can be the most harmful, which is why we have focused our technology on finding the hate speech that users and experts tell us is the most serious,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Post, without explicitly confirming the new approach. “Over the past year, we’ve also updated our policies to catch more implicit hate speech, such as content depicting Blackface, stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world, and banned Holocaust denial.”
The new policy, which has yet to become an official approach or be rolled out system-wide, could have vast implications for Facebook’s status as a neutral platform for content. Like Twitter, Facebook is currently considered a neutral forum for speech, giving it some exemption from government oversight and, under the Federal Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 230 — known as “Section 230” — qualified immunity from responsibility for users’ uploaded content.
The more intense a social media platform’s content scrutiny becomes, the more likely they are to be considered a “publisher” under the law, rather than a “platform” — and this policy may expose Facebook to further responsibility under the law if Federal legislators determine the company is now actively policing users’ speech.
At least one progressive “free speech expert” told the Post she agrees with Facebook’s proposed policy because it helps in addressing “systemic racism” and structural white supremacy specifically because it allows criticism of white men to remain on the platform, even if it ultimately has the effect of censoring other controversial content.
“We can’t combat systemic racism if we can’t talk about it, and challenging white supremacy and White men is an important part of having dialogue about racism,” Danielle Citron, a Boston Law School professor told the outlet. “But you can’t have the conversation if it is being filtered out, bizarrely, by overly blunt hate speech algorithms.”
The proposed changes could have unintended consequences. Non-profits who operate Facebook groups for domestic abuse survivors, for example, say the algorithm deletes their users’ content even if it is neither political nor controversial, simply because it refers to potential violence done by men.
Facebook’s speech policy is under an ongoing transformation, according to The Washington Post, building on past projects designed to understand racial disparities that occur on the platform, as well as interviews and reports from civil rights organizations and focus group interviews.
The outlet notes that Facebook censorship, at least according to the platform itself, is not particularly rare.
“In mid-2019, Facebook began allowing algorithms to take down hate speech content automatically, without being first sent to a human reviewer,” WaPo notes. “Such software was only able to proactively detect 65 percent of comments that [the] company determined were hate speech at the time.”
The percentage today, the company says, is 95 percent, and Facebook says it considers about 1 in every 1,000 comments on the platform to be “hate speech.”
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