According to a report from investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, documents outlining Facebook's secret censorship rules have revealed how historically underprivileged, underrepresented, and vulnerable groups can receive less protection from harassment and hate speech than uber-privileged groups like white men.
Facebook reportedly stated that one of the leaked rules is no longer in effect, to be clear, so it's unclear precisely when the information was completely up-to-date. But as an insight into how the world's most pervasive social media network handles matters of controversial speech, hate speech, and harassment, it's a compelling glimpse behind the scenes.
For example, one rule (the one Facebook told ProPublica says is no longer in effect) prohibited the promotion of "violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state," a provision that caused censors to intervene in various posts by Palestinian activists and journalists.
Some of the precise ways certain types of criticisms and/or attacks are framed also reportedly play a role. For instance, the fact that a congressman's post calling for all "radicalized" Muslims to be killed was seen as targeting a sub-group within Islam reportedly made it permissible under Facebook's rules, while a blanket statement from a Black Lives Matter activist about all white people being racist was deemed unacceptable.
According to ProPublica's report, this allowance for harsh, strident, or even outright bigoted comments if they targeted narrower, specific subsets of people was represented in the documents by slides comparing "women drivers," "black children," and "white men," asking which of the three groups were "protected from hate speech."
The answer was "white men," because both "white" and "men" were deemed protected classes, "children" and "drivers" were not. The protected categories on the list are as follows:
- Religious affiliation
- National origin
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Serious disability or disease
Conversely, here are the categories Facebook does not protect from hate speech or abuse were listed as follows.
- Social class
- Continental origin
- Political ideology
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, told ProPublica:
The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes. 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 also said the company is considering adding an appeals process for those who feel their content was unfairly censored.
A couple of former Facebook employees also spoke to ProPublica about the reasoning behind the rules, like Dave Wilner, who said that because of the amount of content that's on Facebook, the process naturally had to be "more utilitarian than we are used to in our justice system."
The report set off a lot of criticism and controversy. Harassment toward historically underprivileged and oppressed groups on social media has been an issue that those groups have been talking about for a long time as many companies struggle to address harassment.
The fallout from ProPublica's report isn't yet clear, but it seems destined to fuel even more scrutiny. If you've got the time, you can read the full report here.