Facebook's Troubling Hate Speech Standards

Facebook Policies logoThis week Facebook unveiled updated “Community Standards” intended to clarify its reasoning for what content it blocks or removes from its platform.  In addition to addressing issues such as nudity, violence, and terrorism, Facebook also further delved into the subject of “hate speech.” 

Facebook declares that it will remove “hate speech” and states, “Organizations and people dedicated to promoting hatred against… protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook.”  Its process is to investigate as complaints are brought up by platform users. 

Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, noted this standards update with caution.  “Religious communicators are wary that spurious charges might be leveled against them when they proclaim truth from Scripture on controversial issues,” he said. “NRB has documented that Facebook’s track record is biased and heavy-handed in this area, and unfortunately ambiguity appears to remain.”

In a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler last year urging against a formal federal proceeding on hate speech, Dr. Johnson declared, “What constitutes true ‘hate speech’ is convoluted, yet the connotations of such an accusation are extremely grave.  Sadly, this term has been used recklessly by some in our nation and other democracies in an attempt to expunge opposing viewpoints from the marketplace of ideas.”

In a blog post accompanying this standards update, top Facebook policy officials seem to recognize a level of uncertainty around the subject of hate speech.  They note:

It’s a challenge to maintain one set of standards that meets the needs of a diverse global community…. This is particularly challenging for issues such as hate speech. Hate speech has always been banned on Facebook…. We understand that many countries have concerns about hate speech in their communities, so we regularly talk to governments, community members, academics and other experts from around the globe to ensure that we are in the best position possible to recognize and remove such speech from our community. We know that our policies won’t perfectly address every piece of content, especially where we have limited context, but we evaluate reported content seriously and do our best to get it right.

The NRB John Milton Project for Free Speech has shown that several social media corporations have at times engaged in viewpoint censorship, particularly against Christian and conservative speech.  One noteworthy example is Facebook’s temporary take-down of a page by former Governor Mike Huckabee calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” after the chain received criticism for its president’s statement of support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

NRB will remain attentive as Facebook’s implementation of these updated community standards sheds light on its intentions towards otherwise lawful religious speech.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: March 19, 2015

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