When Facebook removed a piece of “hate speech” from its platform, it raised quite a few eyebrows. The reason? It was part of the Declaration of Independence.
A Texas newspaper, The Liberty County Vindicator, was sharing the historical document in “small bites” to make it a “little easier to digest” for readers leading up to July 4. Everything was going fine until the paper’s 10th post, which included this passage from Thomas Jefferson on King George III’s abuses against the colonies:
“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.”
While Facebook didn’t say why, exactly, it removed the post, the Vindicator assumed the phrase “merciless Indian Savages” was flagged by the company’s filters.
“The removal of the post was an automated action,” wrote Casey Stinnett, the Vindicator‘s managing editor. “If any human being working at Facebook were to review it, no doubt the post would be allowed.”
He added that he “searched for a means of contacting Facebook for an explanation or a opportunity to appeal the post’s removal, but it does not appear the folks at Facebook want anyone contacting them. Or, at least, they do not make it easy.”
Eventually, the matter was resolved. Facebook restored the content and admitted to the newspaper that it “made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards.” Later, it told CNN, “We process millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.”
The Vindicator seemed pretty sanguine about the situation.
“We never doubted Facebook would fix it, but neither did we doubt the usefulness of our fussing about it a little,” wrote Stinnett.
Certainly, the incident raises questions about posting historical documents that contain offensive material. The phrase “Indian Savages” is absolutely not acceptable. But it’s useful for the American people to see bare the racist beliefs of their Founding Fathers, and how it led to tragedies like the removal of Native Americans from their lands, spurred by Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
That nuance is lost on computers. Last year, Facebook committed to hiring thousands of human content moderators to look for problematic ads and videos. But, as this incident shows, parsing content from 2.2 billion monthly active users is no easy task.