A recent document dump from ProPublica has revealed how Facebook determines what is and isn’t hate speech. Recently we have seen an uptick in users, mainly people of color, being banned on Facebook for talking about racism and white privilege. This is especially jarring when paired with posts that are inflammatory and often violent, like a recent post from a U.S. congressman who wrote the following about “radicalized” Muslims; “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” wrote U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.” This post was not deleted by Facebook’s hate speech enforcers. However it seems that every week we have a story about someone being banned for standing up for marginalized folks by taking on white supremacy. One of the hosts of the popular podcast The Black Guy Who Tips, Rod, was banned from Facebook recently for decrying Bill Maher’s “house nigger” joke. How did Clay Higgins escape a Facebook ban but Rod did not? The documents obtained by ProPublica outline how.
Facebook defines “hate speech” as attacks against a protected category. According to Facebook, protected categories are sex, race, religious affiliation, national origin, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and serious disability and/or disease. Facebook explicitly states they do not protect social classes, continental origin, appearance, age, occupation, political ideology, religion, and countries. This means, according to Facebook’s hate speech algorithm, a protected category paired with a non protected category results in a “pass”. For example, Irish Women are a protected class according to the algorithm, but Irish Teens are not, since “age” is not a protected category. This is how Representative Higgins post about “radical Muslims” got a pass, since “radical Muslims” are not a protected category. This is also how Didi Delgado’s post stating “White people are racist” received a ban, since according to the algorithm white people are a protected category. Beyond the clearly faulty implementation of the algorithm that leads to targeting of marginalized people, its founding premise is a faulty one. It weighs all protected categories as equal without thought for societal or systemic realities and takes a color-blind approach to hate speech.
Color blindness is an appealing premise to moderates who don’t want to actually deal with the realities of racism and systemic oppression. The premise of color-blindness is that everyone is equal, and therefore all attacks on anyone based on race are all bad. Saying “Niggers are lazy” is just as bad as “white people are racist” to the color-blind, because it operates on the false premise that we’re all equal so all attacks are equal. This is false because we are not equal. That’s it, we aren’t. Saying that “Niggers are lazy” plays into a stereotype that black people are lazy which has deadly consequences for black folk. How often to we see politicians, like Higgins, pushing harmful policies under the guise of “we’re making sure that the takers don’t get free stuff”. That is a direct response to the welfare queen meme that spawned from the stereotype of lazy niggers. That mentality plays into the mindset that leads the GOP to want to kick 22 million people off of their healthcare plans. There is no systemic weight to saying that white people are racist. No politicians are going to push policy based on that. Cops aren’t going to look at white people differently because a Facebook post said that they were racist. But they do look at us differently when a Facebook post reinforces what they already think about us and what their profession is built around.
By taking a color-blind approach to hate speech, inadvertently or not, Facebook has created a system that extends protections to those at the expense of those more vulnerable. Engaging in anti-racist work, or any social justice, is hard and uncomfortable. There is no way to properly do the work without offending a lot of people, and that’s because doing proper work makes those who are passive participants in an oppressive system aware of it. It’s easy to say “I’m not transphobic, I’m not afraid of trans people”, but it’s harder to admit how your jokes about Caitlyn Jenner being a man play into a culture that gets trans women killed daily. You can’t please everyone, but in taking this approach Facebook has proven that they care more about white fragility than actual marginalized people.