Facebook’s Independence Day Faux Pas

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

Just as the United States was about to celebrate Independence Day, Facebook once again embarrassed itself with its onerous censorship policies by flagging the Declaration of Independence as “hate speech.”

The Washington Times is reporting on the kerfuffle that occurred on July 2 when a community newspaper known as the Liberty County Vindicator, which had been running excerpts from the Declaration for nine days on its Facebook page, was suddenly notified that the post was “against our standards on hate speech.” This notice contained a warning that they could lose their account if there were more violations.

The excerpt in question came from the Declaration’s “Bill of Particulars” against King George III which documents how he “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored 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’s managing editor, Casey Stinnett, surmises that the reference to “Indian Savages” could have been to blame for the censorship.

“Perhaps had Thomas Jefferson written it as ‘Native Americans at a challenging stage of cultural development’ that would have been better,” Stinnett wrote. “Unfortunately, Jefferson, like most British colonists of his day, did not hold an entirely friendly view of Native Americans.”

The newspaper, which depends on Facebook to expand its viewership, sought a way to appeal the decision but, like so many others who have had their content censored, did not find this easy to do.

This left the paper in a quandary. If they completed their planned publication of the entire contents of the Declaration, which was to end on Independence Day, they could risk losing their Facebook account.

Happily, they managed to get hold of Facebook and the company quickly reversed the decision.

“It looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards,” Facebook wrote to the Vindicator. “We want to apologize and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action.”

So what is going on at Facebook with all of the viewpoint censorship? In recent years, they have been accused of censoring conservative news, pro-life ads and, most recently, for blocking a country music group’s song, “I Stand for the Flag.”

After being grueled on Capitol Hill earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged a new era of transparency and updated its community guidelines on what content moderators will and will not remove from the 2.13 billion-strong network. It also promised to launch an appeals option for people who feel they have been wrongly censored.

But none of these fixes were much of a help during the latest dust-up.

As Christian Britschgi, assistant editor at Reason magazine points out, this latest faux pas demonstrates “a problem with automated enforcement of hate speech policies, which is that a robot trained to spot politically incorrect language isn’t smart enough to detect when that language is part of a historically significant document.”

While it’s true that the Declaration of Independence contains some politically incorrect language according to today’s standards, Facebook’s censorship did little more than succeed in “whitewashing America’s founding just as we get ready to celebrate it,” Britschgi writes.

Yes, we have some demons in our past but, as he suggests, “a more thoughtful approach to Independence Day—for both celebrants and social media companies alike—would be to grapple with those historical demons” rather than block any mention of them from the page.

Regardless of the “whys” behind this latest misstep, by going after the Declaration of Independence, Facebook did little more than add a bit more tarnish to its already stained image.

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