Content Moderation At Scale Is Impossible: Facebook Kicks Off Anti-Racist Skinheads/Musicians While Trying To Block Racists

from the brings-me-back dept

So, this one brings me back. A few decades ago, I spent a lot of time hanging out with skinheads. And back then, it was all too common to have to go through the standard explanation: no skinheads are not all racists. Indeed, original skinheads in the 1960s were working class Brits with an affinity for Jamaican music, immortalized in songs like Skinhead Girl and Skinhead Moonstomp by the Jamaican band Symarip -- and that meant that many of the original skinheads were also immigrants to the UK from the Caribbean. It was only in the 1980s that a group of newer skinheads started associating with various fascist movements in the UK. Of course, as with so many things, the media picked up those neo-nazi skinheads, and ignored the roots of the movement. In response to the media suddenly believing that all skinheads were nazis, many started associating with the "SHARP" movement (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice -- though also a play on the fact that skinheads like to dress "sharp"). There's a lot more to all of this and a lot of sub-cultures and sub-groupings, and there are plenty of skinheads who are neither racists nor officially "SHARPs" but I'd kinda thought I'd left all that debate and culture behind many years ago, only to have it crashing back into my consciousness last week with the news that Facebook had kicked off a ton of anti-racist, and SHARP skinhead accounts, believing that they were racists.

Hundreds of anti-racist skinheads are reporting that Facebook has purged their accounts for allegedly violating its community standards. This week, members of ska, reggae, and SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) communities that oppose white supremacy are accusing the platform of wrongfully targeting them. Many believe that Facebook has mistakenly conflated their subculture with neo-Nazi groups because of the term “skinhead.”

The suspensions occurred days after Facebook removed 200 accounts connected to white supremacist groups...

Somewhat incredibly, this included the personal account of Neville Staple, the Jamaican born frontman of the famed UK ska band, The Specials (the band who literally launched the 2 Tone label and musical movement, which was named, in part, because most of the bands associated with it had both black and white members).

Of course, all of this seems like just another example of the Masnick Impossibility Theory at work. If you don't know much about the subculture, you might actually believe that skinheads are, by definition, racist. It's a common enough belief. It's not at all historically accurate, but you have to actually understand the culture and the history and the context to know that. If you've just heard somewhere -- as many have -- that skinheads are racists, then it's easy to think that any "skinhead" page or account should be shut down.

And, of course, some of the removals (like Staple) were particularly absurd if anyone had bothered to look at the pages in question:

The account of Clara Byrne, singer of Brighton hard reggae band Dakka Skanks and a musician of color, was also temporarily disabled. Byrne’s most recent Facebook posts support Black Lives Matter and the uprisings against police brutality.

But, of course, part of the issue is that this is not Facebook employees going one-by-one and examining each and every page. That's not how these big automated sweeps work. And, that's just part of the issue with the scale here. It simply can't manually review every page like that, because while you can figure out why each of these is absurd, or why there's confusion, for every bit of time you spend doing that, you have thousands of trolls, bots, and actual racists signing up and creating mayhem as well.

Inevitably, mistakes are made.

To Facebook's credit, soon after this started getting attention, the company reinstated all of those accounts, and there was some other confusion about all of this (for one account, they apparently demanded the user upload ID to prove who they were). Obviously, Facebook can and should continue to improve its systems to avoid situations like this (though, most of the people impacted in the article took it in a good-natured way). But it's yet another example of the impossibility of moderating so much content at scale without inevitable mistakes.

Filed Under: content moderation, content moderation at scale, impossibility theorem, neville staple, racism, sharps, skinheads
Companies: facebook


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  1. identicon
    Flotsam, 18 Jun 2020 @ 6:15pm

    Scaling is hard. Nuance is also hard

    It's good to see the culture of my teen years covered here but nuance is hard. I was a teen skinhead in the late sixties in the UK so I can speak about my own experience.

    Yes, white skinheads loved West Indian music. We were the early adopters of bluebeat, ska, rock steady and reggae in the world outside at large. We also admired the local black kids who were born on Caribbean islands and moved with their parents to Britain during the fifties [1]. The style, the music and slang were adopted by us white boys. During the late sixties the love didn't go both ways though. If you tried to go into a black pub to hear the latest Jamaican imports, well, let's say it was not advisable.

    While the white skinheads may have wanted to be as cool as their West Indian counterparts the same attitude didn't apply to other immigrants. The adjacent London suburb to my location had a very high immigrant population. Not just West Indians but also Pakistanis (East and West) and Indians. That's also a mix of religions and culture in one small area. The skinheads didn't like the Asians arrivals at all. I think the cultural differences were too great compared to the Caribbean migrants.

    At this point the local sport for the white British teens became "Paki Bashing". The name isn't even accurate, any Asian was a target.

    By the seventies things had changed for the better, I'm pleased to say. Left wing skinheads realised they had more in common with the migrants than their right wing counterparts. Police bullying was something they all had to deal with and by the time the punk movement arrived you had a good coalition of races and cultures working against the forces of oppression.

    Today many Britons' favourite food is likely to be curry washed down with a Red Stripe than fish and chips and people are more suspicious of the EU than their local Asian newsagent.

    As for me, I was 16 when the Paki bashing started and I didn't want to be part of that. I made other friends of a more tolerant nature.

    [1] Migrants from all over the Commonwealth came to the UK at the invitation of the government to help fill the job vacancies of the 1950s' boom period.


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