While Americans across the country were gearing up to celebrate Independence Day, the temporary censorship of a Facebook post left one newspaper feeling a little less-than-free to celebrate American independence.
Just days before the July 4th holiday, Texas newspaper The Liberty County Vindicator was posting daily excerpts from the Declaration of Independence in anticipation.
But the July 2nd excerpt instead earned the paper a day-long censorship of the Facebook post for being “hate speech.”
“The first nine parts posted as scheduled, but part 10, consisting of paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration, did not appear,” The Vindicator website read. “Instead, The Vindicator received a notice from Facebook saying that the post ‘goes against our standards on hate speech’.”
Here are the paragraphs in question:
He 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 compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized 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.
After the post was censored, Casey Stinnett, The Vindicator’s managing editor, voiced the paper’s concerns about continuing to post text from the Declaration.
“So, the removal of this morning’s post puts The Vindicator in a quandary about whether to continue with posting the final two parts of the Declaration scheduled for tomorrow and Wednesday. Should Facebook find anything in them offensive, The Vindicator could lose its Facebook page,” he wrote.
An increasing number of publishers have recently faced this very situation. This begs the question: With no telling what will be censored next, how can publishers continue to trust an automated system to decide what news can and can’t be shared?
By the end of the day on July 3rd, Facebook reached out to the paper with an apology for mistakenly censoring their post and let them know it had been restored.
While Facebook did not reveal exactly what cause the post to be flagged as hate speech, a Facebook spokesperson later commented that the term “Indian Savages” could have indeed been the cause.
“Removing this content was a mistake in misunderstanding that it was a quote from the Declaration of Independence,” they said. “In another context, the use of the term “Indian Savages” could violate our hate speech policies.”
Stinnett had already suggested the phrase could have been the cause, but argued that it’s censorship was unreasonable.
“While The Vindicator cannot be certain exactly what triggered Facebook’s filtering program, the editor suspects it was most likely the phrase ‘Indian Savages,’” he wrote. “Perhaps had Thomas Jefferson written it as ‘Native Americans at a challenging stage of cultural development’ that would have been better. Unfortunately, Jefferson, like most British colonists of his day, did not hold an entirely friendly view of Native Americans.”
As Facebook said, everyone makes mistakes. But in this case, it really isn’t anyone making the mistake time and time again. Rather, Facebook’s algorithm continues to censor things it shouldn’t, and month after month, things don’t appear to be significantly changing.
“The removal of the post was an automated action,” Stinnett wrote. “If any human being working at Facebook were to review it, no doubt the post would be allowed…”
Like many publishers, The Vindicator has begun to consider the cost of continuing to depend on Facebook to distribute their news.
“The problem The Vindicator faces is that it has become dependent, perhaps too dependent, on Facebook to communicate with local residents and to promote the newspaper,” Stinnett added.
Whether human error or an automated process is to blame, it’s clear Facebook’s algorithm has yet to be proven trustworthy enough to remove hate speech and fake news, and to ultimately decide what news can — or should — be seen on news feeds around the world.
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