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Tech by VICE

Facebook Blocked Me Because I Said 'Faggot,' Even Though I'm Gay

Mark Zuckerberg's social media website is censoring homosexuals.

by Mitchell Sunderland
26 May 2014, 6:00am

In the last two months, Facebook has blocked me from posting at least three times. I wasn’t banned for using racial epithets or putting up graphic porn – anonymous administrators kicked me off the world’s most popular social media site because I said “faggot”.

I don’t remember how many times I’ve been blocked – I am a well-documented faggot, and I occasionally jokingly refer to myself or my gay friends as faggots, the same way some blacks use the N-word and gay activists used queer in the early 90s. At the end of April, I called my friend Gabriel a fag in the comments section of a link I had posted and he liked my comment. We do that sort of thing all the time, but within a few hours, Facebook blocked me from posting for seven days.

I can understand why Facebook would block a heterosexual who said faggot – at Catholic school, straight boys used the word to make fun of me on the playground nearly every day – but Gabriel and I always use the homophobic slur in a joking or prideful way, robbing it of its harmful meaning. The first time I got banned for using the term, I assumed some sort of hate speech–detecting algorithm had mistaken me for a hetero, but then I remembered Facebook regularly shows me HIV ads targeted at gay men. Zuckerberg and company know my sexual preference – I even say I like boys on my profile.

After I got banned that time, I decided to find out how Facebook decides who gets blocked for saying faggot. The social network’s terms page is vague about this topic: You can’t “bully, intimidate or harass” anyone or post “hate speech”. The site’s community standards page expands on this a bit: 

Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humourous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.

I don’t see how the public conversation Gabriel and I were having could have been interpreted as hate speech, serious or otherwise – and if someone was so offended by the word faggot that they reported me, it would probably be better for them to just unfriend the two of us.

Facebook never explains how long they will block someone, so I messaged the site to explain my situation and appeal the decision. “I am a gay man, yet you have blocked me from saying faggot,” I wrote. “You post HIV ads on my timeline because I’m gay, which is, you know, offensive, but you won’t let me say faggot, which is a gay men’s word to use. Please unblock me.”

They never responded.

When they let me post comments again the first week of May, I looked for ways to say the F-word without getting blocked again. My friend Pearl recommended I change the Gs to 9s the way her black friends write “ni99a” on Facebook. I felt uncomfortable doing this – why should I have to censor myself? – but since I had few other options, I decided to avoid writing F-A-G-G-O-T.

This weekend I slipped, a bit ironically, after I posted a New York Times article about trigger warnings on my wall to criticise oversensitive college kids. A friend commented saying someone would flag me for posting it, and I replied, “I’M A PERMANENTLY FLAGGED FAGGOT.” The next morning, Facebook blocked me for 30 days. I literally couldn’t afford to lose Facebook privileges for a month – I manage VICE’s social media accounts on the weekend – so I reached out to Facebook to find out what the fuck was going on.

I was worried Facebook had some kind of robot that crawled through statuses and comments in search of offensive keywords, but according to a representative for the site, no such thing exists. “When someone reports content to us for being hate speech, we remove it if it attacks others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease,” he said, adding that Facebook understands gay issues because they work with their Safety Advisory Board and Network of Support – bodies that include LGBT advocacy groups – to make these decisions.

After I spoke with the representative, the Facebook team reviewed my account and decided to reverse their decision, claiming they had made a mistake. (To test them, I posted a status saying I was a faggot, and sure enough, they haven’t blocked me.) But if this was a mistake, it’s a mistake they’ve made at least three times in the past two months, and it shouldn’t have taken me a series of messages (and the threat of an article) to win the right to say faggot.

As my case illustrates, Facebook’s system for reporting and blocking users is deeply flawed. Facebook created their community standards to protect gays and other minority groups who are routinely censored, restricted and rejected in the workplace and at school. Instead, we find ourselves looking over our shoulders as we type, worried that someone will misunderstand a word or a phrase and, instead of talking to us, report us to a ban-happy administrator. It turns out Facebook is another place we can’t be free.

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