Under its previous policy, Facebook had a broad definition of hate speech, treating all discriminatory language, regardless of its intended target, as equally harmful. In theory, that might sound fine; in practice, that meant anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ posts, and others posts targeting marginalized groups were treated the same as posts criticizing white people and men. Guess which posts were taken down more frequently?
But according to internal documents obtained by the Washington Post, Facebook has altered its algorithms to prioritize flagging hate speech targeting minority groups. Still in its early stages, the social network’s new system assigns a numerical score to distinguish the severity of the posts in question. Hate speech targeting white men, for example, can still be reported and removed from the platform. But under the new framework, the Post reports, priority is given to attacks on marginalized groups like Black people, Muslims, multi-racial individuals, members of the LGBTQ community, and Jews. The company is also overhauling its system to be more nuanced, a spokesperson told the Post, making its algorithms better able to recognize Blackface content, for instance, or posts that are critiquing racism that may have been removed in the past.
“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,” Boston University law professor Danielle Citron told the Post. “But you can’t have the conversation if it is being filtered out, bizarrely, by overly blunt hate speech algorithms.”
The overhaul, which began this fall, comes after years of pressure on the company to take responsibility for the toxic content, conspiracy theories, and misinformation it has allowed to fester on the platform. Mark Zuckerberg has mostly reacted to those calls to action mostly with begrudging half-measures, suggesting that regulations could hamper free speech. Increasingly, though, criticism is coming from within the company, with employees openly frustrated with the social media giant’s record on race, its enabling of Donald Trump and the right, and other issues.
Like the company’s recent moves to curb disinformation about the election and the coronavirus pandemic, its more precise, vigilant approach to hate speech against marginalized groups is a step in the right direction. The conservatives who love to insist they’re the real victims in any situation don’t see it that way, of course. “LMAO,” the pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted of the overhaul. “Some racists are more equal than others.” But for civil rights groups, the move was a welcome, if overdue, course-correction. “To me this is confirmation of what we’ve been demanding for years,” Color of Change Vice President Arisa Hatch told the Post, “an enforcement regime that takes power and historical dynamics into account.” But like with other changes Facebook has made, this new shift shows that the company is perfectly capable of addressing harmful or misleading content on its platform—which makes it all the more maddening when they don’t.
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