Both are hate speech, Facebook says. So why can’t its technology pick up all the shoot-the-migrants posts I found?
I was scrolling through the hate-emboldening hellhole that is Facebook the other day and came across a Peoria friend’s post about the migrants currently attempting to apply for asylum at the border. I can’t remember the exact wording of the post but it doesn’t matter. The sentiment was simple enough to grasp: fuck them.
From there I’m sure you can imagine how much worse it got. Of the dozen or so comments on the post about half called for the migrants to be shot. Naturally appalled, I told the assembled group of racists that they were awful people, their comments were abhorrent, and I hoped they’d find some fulfillment in life that doesn’t come from the bottomless voids in their souls they’re currently filling with anger, fear and hate. Then I was immediately blocked.
I posted that screenshot of the comments to let my friends in Central Illinois know who some of their neighbors are. After all, the only real recourse for holding racists accountable — considering one of them is currently sitting in the White House — is to publicly shame them. A thread developed. I commented that “Central Illinois is a criminally underrated haven for white trash.”
Seconds later, that comment was flagged for violating Facebook’s rules of “hate speech.”
Facebook has a lot of problems. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the country and the world would probably be better off if it didn’t exist. Just off the top of my head I can think of two historically terrible things that have happened as a result of Facebook’s existence, both of them having roots in the uninhibited spread of absolutely false or misleading propaganda. The first is the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In October, The Times reported that members of the Myanmar military to spread inflammatory lies about the Rohingya on Facebook. Check out this doozy of a graf implicating Facebook directly:
In August, after months of reports about anti-Rohingya propaganda on Facebook, the company acknowledged that it had been too slow to act in Myanmar. By then, more than 700,000 Rohingya had fled the country in a year, in what United Nations officials called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The company has said it is bolstering its efforts to stop such abuses.
This month, the Post reported on a maddening pair of Americans on opposite ends of the political spectrum who are conversely spreading and consuming an unhealthy amount of both completely false news in the form of liberal trolling and all caps right-wing propaganda. On one end of the continent, in Maine, a hyper-liberal blogger cranks out story after story of made-up “news” that is then eaten up by right-wingers, who are then shamed by the blogger’s faithful commentariat watchdogs. Out west, not far from Las Vegas, an elderly woman sits glued to her screen for endless hours each day, absorbing a steady stream of far-right invective and misleading and outright false stories. She used to have hobbies, the paper notes. Now her lone pastime is consuming garbage right-wing propaganda.
The reporter watched as the elderly woman commented on one of the fake news posts created by the blogger from Maine — a meme about Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton flipping the middle finger to Trump, which obviously never even happened. “They never did have any class,” she wrote, not knowing at all that she was being trolled.
When I read the comments that came afterward — ”you’re as smart as a potato, my dear” — I felt bad for the woman. She, nor many other people throughout the country, are or ever were prepared for the brutality and speed of the online world.
Around 2009, I remember getting my first iPhone. Back then back home — I was living in Peoria at the time, working odd jobs and not doing much else — not many people had them. If you did, you were kind of a … nerd. People, especially some of the people I hung around with, scoffed at smartphones. There was a vibe of it being not terribly tough-looking to be tapping away at a screen and scrolling through Facebook or whatever other apps you used back then. Then, something happened. The cost of iPhones dropped dramatically, I guess. Overnight, it seemed, everyone had one. And everyone was all of a sudden on Facebook.
Men I’d known for years who never owned a computer or used email now had a supercomputer in their pockets at all times. They weren’t ready. Like the woman in the Post’s story, one like led to another, and in the algorithmic nest of Facebook, they were presented with more news sources that existed in the same ideological space as the one before. These guys used to read the hometown newspaper I worked at, which aggregated local, national and international news on what I’d argue is a pretty even-handed basis. Now, they were aggregating their own news feeds without even understanding what an algorithm was, let alone that it was responsible for presenting them with the news sources they then chose.
They weren’t ready.
I reached out to Facebook about my blocked comment. One of the things I found after learning I’d been blocked from the shoot-the-migrants post and its author’s profile, is that there is no way to report a post that you no longer have access to. This seems problematic. If someone is threatening you, for instance, and then blocks you from seeing the comments in which they threatened you, how are you supposed to report that?
As of today I have no answer to this. Nor do I have an answer to how, exactly, the term “white trash” is considered hate speech. A Facebook rep explained to me that comments are flagged by the company’s technology (AI, in other words) as well as by users who report them.
I’m not sure which of those two was responsible for flagging my comment, but I do know that as of right now it is Facebook’s position that the term “white trash” qualifies as hate speech. If it was Facebook’s AI that flagged my comment, I think their technology needs some troubleshooting.
Because in a couple minutes of searching I found a dozen public posts in which random people from across the country were saying we should shoot migrants. The oldest one is from July.
Somehow, Facebook hasn’t discovered these posts about shooting desperate migrants, but within seconds had blocked mine regarding white trash in Central Illinois. Here they are if you want to completely disappointed in your fellow Americans.