Facebook set to crack down on hate speech

Social network responds to criticism regarding ads that promote violence against women

Technology trends and news by Steven Loeb
May 29, 2013
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Things like hate speech are such tricky areas. Most of us do not want to listen to anyone go on a racist/misogynistic/anti-semetic rant. But we, of course, have to protect that right to make sure that our rights are protected too. After all, you ban one kind of speech and you can ban any kind of speech. (And yes, I know that there are exceptions when the safety other people is in question).

Still, the Internet takes this idea to the ultimate extreme, with people using the anonymity to put out some of the ugliest, most vile, nasty stuff you can imagine. And Facebook seems to have had enough.

The social network will be reveiwing and updating its user guidelines to bolster efforts to get rid of hate speech on the site, the company announced Tuesday.

"Facebook’s mission has always been to make the world more open and connected. We seek to provide a platform where people can share and surface content, messages and ideas freely, while still respecting the rights of others. When people can engage in meaningful conversations and exchanges with their friends, family and communities online, amazingly positive things can happen," Marne Levine, VP of Global Public Policy at Facebook wrote.

"To facilitate this goal, we also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial."

So what is "harmful contect" exactly? According to Facebook it is "anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying)." Basically, anything that targets a specific person, or advocates a criminal activity.

In order to do more to get rid of this type of speech on the site Facebook will be taking a number of steps, including doing a complete review, and update, of its user guidelines

"To ensure that these guidelines reflect best practices, we will solicit feedback from legal experts and others, including representatives of the women's coalition and other groups that have historically faced discrimination," said Levine.

The site will also be updating the training that it gives to its teams that are responsible for reviewing and evaluating reports of hateful speech or harmful content on the site. Once again, Facebook is working with legal experts.

Perhaps most importantly, Facebook will also be ramping up how accountible those who use "cruel or insensitive" language "by insisting that the authors stand behind the content they create." This means that for the content to remain, the person responsible must include their "authentic identity."

"As a result, if an individual decides to publicly share cruel and insensitive content, users can hold the author accountable and directly object to the content."

So why take this action now? Because Facebook faced a potential backlash from women's groups over questionable content in their advertisements.

In a letter to Facebook last week, gender bias awareness group Women, Action, & the Media, called on the social network to better monitor “groups, pages and images that explicitly condone or encourage rape or domestic violence or suggest that they are something to laugh or boast about.”

"Facebook’s response to the many thousands of complaints and calls to address these issues has been inadequate. You have failed to make a public statement addressing the issue, respond to concerned users, or implement policies that would improve the situation. You have also acted inconsistently with regards to your policy on banning images, in many cases refusing to remove offensive rape and domestic violence pictures when reported by members of the public, but deleting them as soon as journalists mention them in articles, which sends the strong message that you are more concerned with acting on a case-by-case basis to protect your reputation than effecting systemic change and taking a clear public stance against the dangerous tolerance of rape and domestic violence," the group wrote.

Facebook seems to have finally gotten the message.

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