Facebook Censors the Declaration of Independence
The people who run Facebook have some very strange ideas about the speech rights of the company’s customers, which they’ve encoded into computer algorithms that act to censor voices to which the company’s management, staff and/or advisers object.
The latest example of this censorship involves a multi-part series of articles that the Liberty County Vindicator of Liberty County, Texas, ran about the Declaration of Independence in advance of the Fourth of July holiday, which the newspaper posted on its Facebook page. The Vindicator‘s editor, Casey Stennett, reports on what happened when the newspaper reached Part 10 of their series:
Somewhere in paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote something that Facebook finds offensive.
Leading up to Independence Day, The Vindicator challenged its Facebook followers to read the Declaration of Independence. To make it a little easier to digest that short but formidable historic document, the newspaper broke the Declaration down into 12 small bites and one to post each morning from June 24 to July 4.
The first nine parts posted as scheduled, but part 10, consisting of paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration, did not appear. Instead, The Vindicator received a notice from Facebook saying that the post “goes against our standards on hate speech.”
Facebook’s notice then asked The Vindicator to review the contents of its page and remove anything that does not comply with Facebook’s policies.
Those particular paragraphs list a number of the grievances that the then-British subjects had accumulated against the government of King George III in the American colonies. Here’s the transcribed text of the paragraphs that Facebook’s algorithms claim violates the company’s policies from the Declaration of Independence:
“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.”
Reason‘s Christian Britschgi weighs in on the effects of Facebook’s automated censorship:
Of course, Facebook’s actions here are silly. They demonstrate a problem with automated enforcement of hate speech policies, which is that a robot trained to spot politically incorrect language isn’t smart enough to detect when that language is part of a historically significant document.
None of this is meant as a defense of referring to Native Americans as “savages.” That phrasing is clearly racist and serves as another example of the American Revolution’s mixed legacy; one that won crucial liberties for a certain segment of the population, while continuing to deny those same liberties to Native Americans and African slaves. But by allowing the less controversial parts of the declaration to be shared while deleting the reference to “Indian savages,” Facebook succeeds only in whitewashing America’s founding just as we get ready to celebrate it.
A more thoughtful approach to Independence Day—for both celebrants and social media companies alike—would be to grapple with those historical demons.
But was that section of text the portion of the Vindicator‘s article to which Facebook’s censors objected? Unfortunately, nobody yet truly knows the answer to that question, because Facebook has failed to identify which part or parts of this specific text that its management, staff, and advisers would find objectionable enough to direct its programmers to censor for violating the company’s publication policies. Without such clarification, Facebook is exercising little more than its own arbitrary brand of tyranny over publishers, who have little choice but to endure the company’s abusive policies.
It was that sort of abuse and ever-changing standards that drove the American colonists to rebel against King George III’s rule in the first place. It is also the reason why they would go on to create a system of government whose officials would be specifically prohibited from engaging in similar conduct. That is why we celebrate the Fourth of July.