Is “Hate Speech” on Facebook Still Free Speech?

Freedom, Rights, Technology

CommunicationIn a blog post late last month, Facebook said it would evaluate and update its policies on hate speech. The social media company apologized for failing to handle offensive material according to its policies.

Women’s Interest Groups and Advertisers Unhappy With Facebook

Facebook does not allow “content deemed to be directly harmful,” but keeping the site, which now has over a billion users worldwide, free from such material has proved difficult. The blog post stated that its systems didn’t catch and remove the harmful material they way they should have. In some cases, material was flagged for permanent removal and was either removed and then replaced, or was never removed at all. Facebook has promised to change how it handles offensive material through better technology and new training for personnel. “We need to do better – and we will,” it stated.

The post was a response to pressure from groups attacking Facebook for allowing gender-based offensive material to remain on the site. A coalition including Women, Action & the Media along with The Everyday Sexism Project published an open letter to Facebook calling for it to remove the offensive content that appears to support violence against women.

The group also alerted advertisers of the problem, hoping that pressure from advertisers would make Facebook react more quickly. The strategy seems to have worked. More than a dozen companies pulled ads, including automaker Nissan. Facebook’s revenue from advertisers was a staggering $1.25 billion, according to latest numbers. It cannot afford to alienate advertisers, who understandably don’t want their ads running alongside misogynistic content.

The Balance Between “Hate Speech” and Free Speech

A 1993 report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration defines hate speech as “speech that advocates or encourages violent acts or crimes of hate” and “speech that creates a climate of hate or prejudice, which may in turn foster the commission of hate crimes.” The majority of states have laws on the books which would allow prosecution of hate speech on the internet if it incited violence, though in practice this is rare.

Freedom of expression is one of the great rights that we Americans hold dear, and any curtailing of that freedom must be absolutely necessary. Determining what’s necessary is where the difficulty is: the definition leaves room for subjective interpretation on what is actually hate speech versus what is merely in poor taste.

Facebook acknowledged this difficulty in the blog post by saying that they need to make “difficult decision” regarding choices between “free expression and community respect.” The company errs on the side of free speech, by stating that “offensive or controversial” material is acceptable, and that it will “continue defending the principles of freedom of self-expression on which Facebook is founded.”

In addition, Facebook and other social media sites can obscure an individual’s identity, allowing them to post something offensive while remaining hidden. To combat this, a few months ago Facebook instituted a new policy whereby somebody posting “cruel and insensitive humor” must provide their identity. The hope is that with increased transparency and accountability, the author will no longer want to post such material. So far it seems to be a success.