Facebook apologized after their algorithm declared part of The Liberty County Vindicator’s post containing passages of the Declaration of Independence as “hate speech” and removed it entirely from their site.
The phrase “merciless Indian savages”, taken from paragraph 31 of the Declaration of Independence, triggered the algorithm that removed it from the social-media giant’s site–but shortly after the removal, Facebook restored the content and apologized to the newspaper, “We made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our community standards.”
In a statement later distributed by the spokeswoman for Facebook, Sarah Pollack, she stressed that the social-media company gets numerous reports each week and they don’t always get things right. “The post was removed by mistake and restored as soon as we looked into it,” Pollack said. “We process millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.”
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The Liberty County Vindicator, based out of Texas had posted passages from the declaration in celebration of Independence Day, but paragraphs 27 to 31 were removed by the Facebook algorithm. Facebook sent a notification to the newspaper informing them that those paragraphs in particular “goes against our standards on hate speech.”
In the Declaration of Independence, paragraphs 27 to 31 contain the following text:
“[The King of Great Britain] 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 complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilised 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.”
The Vindicator said it was understandable how the algorithm could have picked up on the phrase in the passage and noted, “Unfortunately Jefferson, like most British colonists of his day, did not hold an entirely friendly view of Native Americans,” adding that “there is a good deal in that passage that could be thought hateful.”
This is not the first time that Facebook has “gotten it wrong” with the algorithm removing content deemed as “hate speech.” Back in 2012, at least a dozen people, along with the Defamation League, protested a page called Jewish Ritual Murder to Facebook, but nothing was done about the page until ProPublica asked Facebook specifically about the page’s content.
After the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to step up the monitoring of posts that celebrated “hate crimes or acts of terrorism.”
Facebook algorithms define seven types of “attacks” considered hate speech: calls for segregation, degrading generalization, calls for violence, dismissing, calls for exclusion, slurs and cussing.
Facebook also employs around 20,000 people that are part of their safety and security team, in which a portion of that includes content reviewers. The content reviewers often times make different decisions on items with similar content and don’t always follow the company’s complex guidelines. Proving that what is deemed offensive to some, may not strike the same nerves with others.
In 2017, Facebook’s vice president of Global Operations and Media Partnerships, Justin Osofsky said in a statement “We must do better.” He added that around 66,000 posts are reported each week to Facebook as hate speech but not everything offensive qualifies as content needing to be removed. “Our policies allow content that may be controversial and at times even distasteful, but it does not cross the line into hate speech,” he said. “This may include criticism of public figures, professions, religions, and political ideologies.
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