Facebook Needs To Learn It Can't Teach Tolerance By Acting As An Overzealous Censor

from the a-huge-platform-for-speech-undermined-by-its-own-caution dept

Facebook is developing a speech impediment. The recent fracas over beheading videos was marked by severe bouts of waffling from the social media giant. On one hand, it seems to want to ease unfettered expression. On the other hand, it’s set itself up as the content police.

These two aspects often collide with disastrous results. Beheadings are a go, but breast cancer groups can’t post photos of mastectomies. Recent partnerships with government agencies see Facebook willing to censor by proxy, even as it attempts to roll back its control in other areas. Giving 800+ million users access to a “report” button is well-intended, but the reality is more troubling. Something that’s simply unpopular can be clicked into oblivion in nearly no time whatsoever.

Here’s how Facebook’s efforts to play both sides (free speech/content patrol) works in practice. [Caution: contains mandatory autoplay video because every TV news website in the US apparently believes we want to be informed without consent.]

Fitness advocate and mother of three, Maria Kang, is an avid blogger and Facebook user, but her most recent post didn’t sit well with Facebook, and some people are now calling her a bully…

When Kang saw an article online from the Daily Mail showing plus-size women posing in lingerie, she logged onto her Facebook page and started writing.

“The popular and unrelenting support received to those who are borderline obese (not just 30-40lbs overweight) frustrates me as a fitness advocate who intimately understands how poor health negatively effects a family, a community and a nation,” Kang said.

“While I think it’s important to love and accept your body, I was a little peeved because I think that we’re normalizing obesity in our society,” Kang said.

One thing that’s worth pointing out is that Kang posted this rant on her page. She didn’t head to a body acceptance group page or the Daily Mail’s post or anywhere that she would be, in effect, intruding. So, while people may have found it offensive, she didn’t go out of her way (so to speak) to offend.

This ultimately didn’t matter. Outraged readers reacted swiftly enough to get her post taken down and her account yanked in record time. Facebook explained its actions to Kang this way.

Just three hours after her post went viral, Facebook responded by removing the post and shutting down her account, calling the post “hate speech,” according to Kang.

The bright line between protected expression and hate speech may occasionally be rather grey and dim, but there’s a big difference between what Kang said and what most people would consider to be “hate speech.” Something that angers others — even if it’s several others — is not “hate speech” solely because it provokes a strong reaction.

Shortly after Kang went public with this, Facebook offered a completely different explanation of what happened.

“A user reported content on her page, and it was mistakenly removed by Facebook. When we realized the error we corrected it immediately, and restored full access to Ms Kang. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Facebook restored Kang’s account but did not restore the post, saying Kang could repost it if she chose to. At this point, the post is still deleted, along with every comment, Like, etc. that was attached to it. Reposting it fresh would pretty much be pointless. Kang made her point once and was treated to Facebook’s baffling, inconsistent “policy” on controversial content.

Many readers agreed with Kang’s sentiments. Many others felt it was bullying. There’s no real “right” viewpoint here because all Kang did was express her opinion. The correct response would have been to leave it alone and let the best weapon against offensive speech sort it out: more speech. Kang’s posting undoubtedly drew at least as much vitriol as she offered up. Speech battles speech better than weak censorious efforts like Facebook’s knee jerk response.

The platform has nearly one billion users. To shut down speech because of a single report completely undermines the power inherent in one of the largest social networks in the world. Facebook: you have a billion voices. Let them talk it out. Hastily pulling the trigger at the behest of those offended only makes it harder for the offender to see how their words have affected others. It certainly doesn’t teach anyone to be more tolerant. All it does is feed into their mindset by proving them “right” — that the rest of the world can’t handle their “truth.”

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Comments on “Facebook Needs To Learn It Can't Teach Tolerance By Acting As An Overzealous Censor”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: And people wonder why...

These platforms are pretty good regardless of the issues they may present. I don’t log into facebook for weeks and yet I like the fact that it is there. Recently we managed to gather a big bunch of people from high school and organized an amazing meeting in a pub (we closed the place for a private event). I also manage to keep in touch with people even though they don’t even live in my country anymore, changed mail, phone and everything else. Social networks do have their usefulness. It is a pity though that they are failing in the freedom of speech front.

Ninja (profile) says:

Report buttons are kind of double edged. See Techdirt for a very close example. At times sensible comments from the usual critics get hidden because the community as a whole decided they aren’t worth reading (reasonably I should say). There are also times when regular users get hidden because they post something that a good number of people don’t agree or find that it’s not needed (ie: preemptive trolling). However there is a VERY important difference. Here the comment is merely hidden and no further action is taken unless there’s real abuse (and Mike surely can weight in here if any explanation is needed).

Facebook should NOT prevent the person from accessing their account based on mere reports even if there is reason to do so. There should be a system to allow the person to see the post was reported and that Facebook took action (ie: the post is hidden and a warning is issued). Many people developed real ‘facebooks’ there and losing access would mean losing lifelong pictures and content. This is not right. In the worst case they can be prevented from posting but NOT from accessing past content. And even the “offensive” content should not be deleted (rather hidden).

The key point here is that there is a need for appealing any decision from the company. There’s no such a thing in the big companies unless it becomes public that they are censoring stuff arbitrarily.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know, I’ve read nearly every comment in every article I could over the years, and I have maaaybe ONCE seen a regular commenter hidden. Despite this, I keep seeing the “regular commenters are hidden” line brought forth fairly often.

Every other time it’s been a troll. Whether actual troll, or troll baiter. Sometimes people defend the trolls outrageous comments simply because they didn’t resort to ad hominem, or their usual attack just happens to be on target (read, any article negative about google or rich corporations has a small chance of Blue accidently posting something people will agree with).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I never said anomaly, I said vanishingly small percentage. I’m trying to point out that people say things like “legitimate commenters get censored” when it happens apparently at a rate of something like .1%. When the odds are that small, if not smaller due to the self admitted baiting, the issue of the report button cannot be considered a significant issue, despite some people trying to make it so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

anonymous comments is by itself not very significant. What is significant is the way censoring works.

I use several highly moderated channels often, but my comments are most likely to get denied from techdirt by filter. It may be the controversial opinions, sensitive subjects I trample over or plain faulty logic by the filter but techdirt has a filtering that can at times catch posts before they become public. I see the lack of explaination from the filter as a bigger problem than the semi-anarchistic mob-system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Indeed. I’d argue that, whilst Kang is, IMO, wrong, there is no reason that Facebook should nuke someone’s account for arguing against a position that can be held without rancour.

Kang was upset because she seems to feel that there is an issue that isn’t being dealt with appropriately. She didn’t seem to post it anywhere else but her own page. I think she’s wrong (because I know healthy people who are considered morbidly obese based on their mass alone.) But that’s no reason to shut down speech – especially speech I don’t agree with.

Even saying that, I doubt that there shouldn’t be consequences for what she wrote; only that she should be ‘punished’ by a company that has a seemingly arbitrary content-removal system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“At times sensible comments from the usual critics get hidden because the community as a whole decided they aren’t worth reading…”

You are wrong. This has been beaten over and over again here and elsewhere. The problem is that people use the report button as a “I disagree” button.

This is EASILY solved. Facebook can implement a “dislike” button and track both like and dislike numbers. Techdirt could implement a score system: good comments have higher score. Comments below a certain threshold could be hidden at the user’s discretion, etc.

This problem has already been solved and the solution works very well. Look at sites like Stack Overflow.

Reporting should be saved for comments/posts/etc that have total disregard for rules of conduct, comments that are clear spam, etc. And each comment that gets reported over a reasonable threshold should be closely scrutinized and COMPLETELY removed.

Or we can keep making up reassuring rationalizations. It’s not censorship, you can just click on it to unhide (provided you unblock google analytics, google apis, etc.).

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You are wrong. This has been beaten over and over again here and elsewhere. The problem is that people use the report button as a “I disagree” button.

I actually prefer Ars Technica’s moderation system, where the likes/dislikes are shown below the comment, and after a number of dislikes, the comment is hidden (but still accessible.) I don’t mind group censorship, so long as the comment is still available to those who want to read it (as I often do with ootb comments that get reported here.)

Report should really only be used for those comments that are so vile or so spammy that the commenter should be brought to the attention of the site hosts (for banning purposes.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I dislike it, as sometimes a cotroversial comments gets hidden and I have to login and go to their forums to find it. The comment is NOT available if you just click “read comments” on any particular article.

Some people use the report button as a “I disagree” button here on techdirt, but the instances where non-trollish comments are hidden are exceedingly rare. And even in those cases, I can very easily click “show comment”.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I dislike it, as sometimes a cotroversial comments gets hidden and I have to login and go to their forums to find it. The comment is NOT available if you just click “read comments” on any particular article.

Only a very few end up perma-banned. But I agree, the comments should be hidden and you should be allowed to unhide them easily, which Ars has problems with in a very few cases.

Some people use the report button as a “I disagree” button here on techdirt, but the instances where non-trollish comments are hidden are exceedingly rare. And even in those cases, I can very easily click “show comment”.

Having a like/dislike system here, with hidden comments that are easily accessible would be an improvement. As it is, the report button being the dislike button is a poor substitute, especially for someone who values Free Speech and the ability of everyone to speak their mind even if it is controversial, but wants to increase SNR by removing derailments such as inane/off-topic discussion and wanton spambots. To keep it on topic, the same could be true for Facebook too (though it would need some work, since I hate clicking the like button every time someone mentions something bad happening, when dislike would be far more appropriate.)

Alana (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think Techdirt is actually pretty good about the whole “I disagree” over actual report issue.

See, there’s a line between “I disagree” and “Only serves as flame bait and doesn’t add to the discussion at all” like pretty much all of OOTB’s posts.

I’ve seen a lot of people here have debates with people in the comments that have polar opposite views (Including pro-copyright ones) without usage of the “Report” button unless a party started attacking the other baselessly.

Here’s the thing. If your comment is destructive instead of constructive, it is going to be reported. That is how it works here. I rarely, if ever, see it used as an “I disagree” button unless the person has already proved that he is not willing to have a constructive conversation.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The people who come here and insult Mike, try to discredit Techdirt, and call everyone else commenting derisive names all think they’re getting hidden simply because people disagree with them, not because they’re disagreeable.

They can’t take responsibility for why they’re being reported – it’s everyone else’s fault.

Riot.Jane (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Don’t forget: MANY people have conditions that conspire to make them overweight/obese no matter what they do. I read what Kang wrote, and I swear to you, the passive-aggressive hatefulness of it made me feel like shit about myself yet again … As if everything unspoken in our culture doesn’t do enough to make me feel like shit about myself.

I’m a 5’8″ female with 20″ across shoulders (so, no small bone structure here). My BMI is 33 (Class I Obese, the lowest classification of obesity). There are legitimate_medical_reasons for my BMI, but narcissistic, emotionally ugly, bullying people like Kang say that it’s a lack of discipline and hard work that causes it. The drum beat of people like her just_never_stops. And you had to add your drum, AC?

See, I have a hiatal hernia which literally makes me feel hungry every.single.hour.of.every.single.day if I don’t have the $ to refill my TWO Rx acid medications (which I don’t always have). Combined with not-well-treated sleep disorders (yes, FIVE diagnosed sleep disorders, only two of which are moderately-well treated) that sap my strength and energy within 8 hours of waking, and some days it’s all I can do to not fall asleep at the wheel on the way home. (Which, of course would be blamed on me, too, for being irresponsible … Just like being fat.)

I’m single, and I don’t have another income in my house besides my own. When it’s all I can do to work some days and I have no energy after the 8-hour mark every day, the drum beat makes me feel like a failure as_a_human_being. I’d bet money that a large percentage of the people who complained are in my situation, or know someone who is, or who are enlightened enough to have some fscking empathy and the ability to realize that not_everyone_is_you, AC and Kang.

Our culture’s fat shaming has GOT to stop, and I’m glad people complained, and I’m glad there’s a wider dialogue because … WTF do you, AC, and Kang and all the rest propose I, and others with legitimate medical reasons for high BMIs (whom y’all characterize constantly as ‘i am as fat as fuck, dont want to stop eating but cant handle being told what i am’), actually do? Hide under bridges until we die so as not to offend your eyes with our weight and burden your health insurance premiums with issues that we didn’t ask to have? Yeah, that’s productive.

Trust me, we’d like to be fscking normal. Seriously. We’d like to be thin, and trim, and active, and everything our culture programs us as children and drum-beats into our heads every waking moment of every waking day that we should be. We have the weight of Atlas in shame in our souls already because of the childhood programming and constant cultural drumbeat, so understand where we’re coming from when we scream ENOUGH!!

I’m glad she was smacked back down like the narcissistic troll she is (‘What’s YOUR excuse?’ she asks, because, yeah, everyone’s just_like_her), but I personally think FB should have simply removed the post if they were going to take any action at all. She deserves a good proverbial smacking (which she received), but her non-apology makes it clear that she can’t be taught a damned thing about human kindness.

Weight is complex. There are many, many reasons people are overweight, and the reasons are often complex. The’re often medical, and they’re also often emotional. When humans gain weight, their physiology is fulfilling its evolutionary destiny and no amount of crippling the psyches of affected fatties is going to change any of this.

How about an intelligent conversation about a multidisciplinary approach to obesity reduction and life-long weight control? We have so much technology at our disposal to have such a conversation, but we’re using it to continue the cultural shaming. Kang and you and people like you, AC, are not helping. Please just stop.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:

As much as I appreciate your plight, Riot.Jane, and bearing in mind that I am also of the portly persuasion, I think it’s reasonable to remember that unpopular speech and hate speech are different things. She made that statement on her own page, not yours. Let her have her opinion and her unwarranted worship of the body beautiful. Age will soon catch up with her and that will be the end of that.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: I want a button...

I want a button… …that, when pushed, will issue every Facebook user a ticket on the B Ark.

I’d have a good retort, if I wasn’t sitting in a nice hot bath.

I just can’t figure out how 8×6=42, though. Having your planet destroyed five minutes before the program was finished tends to result in weird data.

Anonymous Coward says:

I honestly don’t see the point of censoring /hiding a users comment .. we are all adults here for the most part .. could you imagine what this would be like if it wasn’t the interwebs .. “Milt was walking down the street singing and poof his mouth disappeared while walking past Michelle …but..Michelle didn’t like singing so she used her sonic mute button to silence Milt .. couldn’t she just not listen .just had a “the more you know moment”

ThatFatMan (profile) says:

No Right

When will people just learn that they don’t have a right to not be offended?

You don’t have that right. No one has given it to you, and it certainly isn’t inherent to life or society.

If something offends you, you can leave or walk away, you can go to a different website even, you can change the channel on the television. But I don’t see that you have the right to prohibit me from viewing something you don’t agree with.

Anonymous Coward says:


?It is modulation, not privacy, that poses the greater threat to innovative practice,? explains Cohen. ?Regimes of pervasively distributed surveillance and modulation seek to mold individual preferences and behavior in ways that reduce the serendipity and the freedom to tinker on which innovation thrives.? Cohen has pointed out the obvious irony here, not that it?s easy to miss; the tech industry is uncritically labeled America?s hothouse of innovation, but it may in fact be killing innovation by disenchanting the world and locking inspiration in an cage.


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