Embarrassed Facebook Will Fix Hate Speech Policies

Last Tuesday, non-profit group Women, Action, & the Media issued an open letter to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) demanding “swift, comprehensive and effective action addressing the representation of rape and domestic violence” on the social network. The letter cites several groups and pages on Facebook that “explicitly condone or encourage rape or domestic violence or suggest that they are something to laugh or boast about,” and calls on the company to step up and moderate what it — and many others — consider to be blatant hate speech.

With over 1 billion users around the world, it’s no surprise that Facebook’s social web is punctuated with various forms of hate speech and obscenities. To date, Facebook’s policy has been to “prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial.” It defines harmful content as anything that organizes real-world violence, theft, property destruction, or inflicts targeted emotional distress (i.e. bullying). This directive is obviously subjective, and the company has created filtering and reporting technology and established a team of moderators to try to deal with violations intelligently and dynamically.

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But it should also come as no surprise that some content that violates Facebook’s policies fly below the radar. What’s more, given the subjectivity of content and awkward workarounds like “humor” tags and claims to artistic expression, content that violates the spirit but not the letter of the policy is sometimes left unaddressed by moderators, despite complaints from users.

Women, Action, & the Media issued the letter because of Facebook’s failure to act on the “many thousands of complaints and calls to address” groups that have been identified by Women, Action, & the Media as well as dozens of other activist groups to violate the spirit of hate speech policies.

“Facebook is an enormous social network with more than a billion users around the world, making your site extremely influential in shaping social and cultural norms and behaviors,” argues the letter. Quantifying that claim is a nebulous endeavor, but it’s clear that Facebook aims to hold itself to the high standards that anyone would expect of a such a socially-influential service.

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As outlined by its policies, Facebook actively engages in moderation of certain content. Activist groups working on the behalf of victimized religious and racial groups have already established relationships with the social network’s moderation team to create more sophisticated guidelines and enforcement mechanisms. Addressing this, Women, Action, & the Media argues that in its efforts to make Facebook a “safe and respectful place for sharing and connection,” the company has neglected to engage with women’s groups. The evidence of this is the proliferation of objectionable pages that ostensibly violate Facebook’s policies, but have not been removed.

The letter issued by Women, Action, & the Media worked. About a week after it was published online, Facebook responded with a blog post articulating its current approach to hate speech, how it addresses objectionable content, and the steps it will take to edit its policies in reaction to the newly-brought-to-light violations.

Some observers couldn’t help but notice that the company may have reacted so quickly to the letter because of the reaction that several advertising partners had.

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In order to compel Facebook to affect change, Women, Action, & the Media hosted a page putting the content of the pages it flagged for objectionable content on display. Screen shots of these pages showed violent pictures and messages encouraging or trivializing violent behavior along with the advertisements that naturally appear next to them.

Some of the companies that had advertisements appear on these pages, such as Nissan’s U.K. unit and Nationwide Building Society, halted some of their Facebook ad programs. Other major brands such as Zipcar and Zappos.com reportedly addressed the issue to Facebook. This pressure from its advertising partners no doubt prompted the company to act quickly.

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