According to an unsettling new report by Pro Publica, Facbook may have a racial double standard for how it flags and censors content. Their report is based on analysis of internal documents from the company, but its findings were also made plenty apparent by two recent events.
Earlier this month, in response to a terrorist attack in London, white, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins of the Republican party wrote in a post about “radicalized” Muslims: “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” declared U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
Pro Publica notes that “Higgins’ plea for violent revenge went untouched by Facebook workers who scour the social network deleting offensive speech.”
But just the month before, Black Lives Matter activist DiDi Delgado‘s post calling white people racist was not only removed, but her account was also disabled for a week.
According to documents obtained by Pro Publica, this distinction was drawn because Higgins’ post “targeted a specific sub-group of Muslims — those that are “radicalized” — while Delgado’s post was deleted for attacking whites in general.” Of course, whether or not the intent is to stigmatize all Muslims, the term “radical Islam” with its brash, intolerant connotations, certainly does.
At any rate, Pro Publica elaborates further on Facebook’s “subset” rule, which seems to leave some groups more vulnerable than others:
“The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at “protected categories”—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about “subsets” of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected.”
Danielle Citron, a law professor and expert on information privacy at the University of Maryland, told Pro Publica this “colorblind” approach, unfortunately, does far more harm than good for marginalized groups, as it will “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”
“The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,” Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, told Pro Publica. “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 OK to share.”
Bickert is right about cultural relativism and its trickiness. But Facebook seems unwilling to acknowledge how the rigidness of its “subset” policy is giving horrifying content a pass, while simultaneously limiting the free speech of others, such as activists like Delgado.
It fails to answer for why posts like Higgins’, which quite literally incite violence against all Muslims since many who are hostile to Islam don’t distinguish between Muslims and whatever they think a “radicalized Muslim” is, while posts that offer justified criticism of white privilege and complicity in a culture that continues to implicitly benefit them at the expense of people of color.
It may seem controversial to assert that white people are racist if they choose to quietly accept the benefits of institutions that simultaneously oppress nonwhite people — it may even be upsetting for white people to read and consider this, and many across the political spectrum may, in fact, disagree with this idea. But such posts speak to an overarching, very real culture of lingering and institutionalized racism, a culture that too many are ignorant of, and a culture that no one should be prohibited from talking about.
An example of this? “Facebook also locked out Leslie Mac… her offense was writing a post stating ‘White folks. When racism happens in public — YOUR SILENCE IS VIOLENCE’,” Pro Publica reports.
Mac’s account was shortly reinstated, but she would later write, “Not a single one of my black female friends who write about race or social justice have not been banned.”
At the end of the day, not only is it outrageous that these posts are removed while posts inciting violence against Muslims are not, but it’s also just sad — sad that so many Facebook users will be denied exposure to crucial dialogue about race relations in America.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.