Hate Speech, Free Speech — Does Facebook Know the Difference?

Image: Pretty Double-Headed by Wangechi Mutu

This morning, The New York Times launched a clever crowdsourcing campaign to help determine whether or not six “deeply insulting” statements should qualify as hate speech on Facebook. As of this year, Facebook employs 7,500 to parse free speech from hate speech. But does it know the difference?

In June, ProPublica posted the hate speech rules Facebook uses to train its reviewers. It later came under fire for prioritizing white men over Black children in the screening process, prompting it to change its policy to cover age as a protected category. Some question the maneuver’s sincerity.

What muddies the water the most is the platform’s policy on modifiers. For example, “women need to be hit in the head” does qualify as hate speech, because it advocates violence based on gender (a protected category). On the other hand, “female sports reporters need to be hit in the head” does not qualify. Because, as the Times observes, including occupation in the attack “negates the protection based on gender.”

And while Facebook considers “white men are assholes” hate speech, saying “poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus” is okay.

One ProPublica reader says, “The idea of censorship of social media just feels like a slippery slope. When some humans are setting a rubric for other humans, however thoughtful and logical it may seem, it makes free speech meaningless.” Another says, “They protect based on gender identity? Tell that to their ‘real name’ policy enforcers.” ProPublica wants users to report hate speech through its Facebook page.