Facebook Fails and Flails Again
Facebook Fails and Flails Again
On the eve of the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Facebook once again stepped into a pile of steaming, stinking excrement of its own making. This time, the Declaration itself was the target of Facebook censors. This action comes less than three months after Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, appeared before Congress to answer questions about the way the social media platform operated and to reassure lawmakers it was not censoring the conservative message.
In this particular case, The Liberty County Vindicator, a small Texas newspaper, did what so many newspapers have done over the years. In an attempt to help remind its readers what the Declaration said, the paper ran a series of posts quoting this most important founding document and linked to the posts on its Facebook page. The first nine of those posts went up on Facebook without problem. Number 10, to have been published on Facebook, well, that was a different matter.
According to the Vindicator, “Somewhere in paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote something that Facebook finds offensive.” All the paper knew for sure was Facebook found something so offensive in those paragraphs that it removed the post. This being Facebook, they weren’t going to make it easy for the paper to know just how it violated the company’s community standards. It didn’t say a particular word or phrase had triggered the algorithm that caused the removal. Nor did it give the paper an easy way to contact the powers-that-be to get a clarification.
In fact, “the editor has 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. The Vindicator has sent Facebook a feedback message. That being the only way found so far to contact the company.” This is after Facebook Vice President of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert wrote back on April 24th that FB was going to make it easier for people to appeal their decisions. In another post that day, FB noted “One of the most important things that we have to take into account is context. ” It would seem it failed badly on both accounts this time.
So what exactly did those few paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence say that was so bad FB’s algorithm flagged and removed it?
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.
Maybe it was the use of “Indian Savages”. Maybe it was seen as language inciting rebellion and revolution. But against whom? It’s been almost 250 years since these words were written. Perhaps there wasn’t enough context for the algorithm to determine this was an historical document being quoted. Whatever the explanation, two things are perfectly clear. First, this is a Facebook fail of epic proportions. Second, it seems to confirm what conservatives have been saying for some time now — that Facebook is trying to silence them.
While it is a fail, it is also a flail on Facebook’s part as well. The Vindicator’s editor did use what means he could to contact FB. Late yesterday afternoon, Facebook restored the so-called offending post. In an e-mail sent to the Vindicator, the social media platform had this to say:
It looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards. We want to apologize and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action.
While that is all well and good — and the least Facebook could do — there is still no indication of why the content had been removed in the first place. Just an “oops”. This is troubling on a number of different levels,. By not specifying what it was about the language of the post that triggered the removal, there is no way for Facebook to be held accountable if there is a bias built into their algorithm. There is no indication what part of their Community Standards was specifically violated. There is no indication of what sort of review was done after the Vindicator’s editor contacted them. Most troubling of all is the very valid assumption that had the editor not objected and done all he could to contact Facebook, the post would never have been restored.
Facebook can put it down to a problem with their automated system that isn’t smart enough to judge words based on context, but the real issue here is a lack of accountability to all its users. Adding contact information to their take down notices is a simple bit of coding. It isn’t something that should take three months or more to include. So why hasn’t Zuckerberg made sure that, at the very least, has been done? Could it be because he isn’t really interested in making Facebook “a platform for all ideas” as he told Congress?
Perhaps Zuckerberg and the other higher ups at Facebook should take a couple of hours today to step away from their parties and their pats on the back to watch 1776 and then to read the Declaration of Independence. They might come away with a better understanding for what makes this country so great if they did.