A small community newspaper in Texas wanted to recognize the Fourth of July with a history lesson about the United States Declaration of Independence – but Facebook’s hate-speech algorithm got in the way.
The Liberty Founder Vindicator had been sharing excerpts from the 1776 founding document on its Facebook page all week, ahead of July Fourth celebrations. But a segment of Part 10 that the paper had scheduled to post never appeared. According to editor Casey Stinnett, the Vindicator received a note from Facebook saying that it “goes against our standards on hate speech.”
The incident was yet another blunder by the social media giant, which has faced mounting criticism for its inconsistent handling of hateful content or hate groups using its platform. In April, amid scrutiny that it wasn’t doing enough to keep hate off its site, Facebook released its 25-page internal handbook showing how they identify, and then remove, hate speech, spam, or threats.
Facebook defines hate speech as “a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disability or disease.” It defines “attack” as “violent or dehumanizing speech.”
In this instance, Facebook flagged the following segment from the Declaration of Independence.
“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.”
Stinnett, in an op-ed posted on the Vindicator’s website, hypothesized that the reference to “merciless Indian Savages” was what Facebook’s algorithm flagged.
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“While the Vindicator cannot be certain exactly what triggered Facebook’s filtering program, the editor suspects it was most likely the phrase “Indian Savages”,” wrote Stinnett. “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,” Stinnett added, “to be honest, there is a good deal in that passage that could be thought hateful.”
“The post was removed by mistake and restored as soon as we looked into it,” a Facebook spokesperson told VICE News in an email. “We process millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.” Facebook employs about 15,000 moderators to screen content, with plans to hire 5,000 more by year-end and to use more AI within the next 5-10 years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently said.
Stinnett says that Facebook also apologized to him directly.
“It looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards,” Facebook told Stinnett in an email. “We want to apologize and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action.”
Cover image: This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman, announces the separation of 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. The formal signing by 56 members of Congress began on Aug. 2. (AP Photo)