Facebook Deletes About 66,000 Hate Speech Posts Every Week

Context and intent mark the most difficult things for Facebook’s content moderators to determine

The second installment in Facebook’s Hard Questions series of explanatory posts focuses on how the social network handles hate speech.

Vice president of Europe, Middle East and Asia public policy Richard Allan penned a long Newsroom post explaining the challenges Facebook faces in dealing with hate speech.

Allan outlined how Facebook defines hate speech:

Our current definition of hate speech is anything that directly attacks people based on what are known as their “protected characteristics”—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity or serious disability or disease.

There is no universally accepted answer for when something crosses the line. Although a number of countries have laws against hate speech, their definitions of it vary significantly.

There is very important academic work in this area that we follow closely. Timothy Garton Ash, for example, has created the Free Speech Debate to look at these issues on a cross-cultural basis. Susan Benesch established the Dangerous Speech Project, which investigates the connection between speech and violence. These projects show how much work is left to be done in defining the boundaries of speech online, which is why we’ll keep participating in this work to help inform our policies at Facebook.

Allan said that over the past two months, Facebook has deleted some 66,000 posts that were reported as hate speech each week, or about 288,000 per month, and he detailed why “too often we get it wrong”:

Sometimes, it’s obvious that something is hate speech and should be removed because it includes the direct incitement of violence against protected characteristics or degrades or dehumanizes people. If we identify credible threats of imminent violence against anyone, including threats based on a protected characteristic, we also escalate that to local law enforcement.

But sometimes, there isn’t a clear consensus because the words themselves are ambiguous, the intent behind them is unknown or the context around them is unclear. Language also continues to evolve, and a word that was not a slur yesterday may become one today.

Context and intent mark the most difficult things for Facebook’s content moderators to determine, and Allan offered examples of both:

What does the statement, “Burn flags not fags,” mean? While this is clearly a provocative statement on its face, should it be considered hate speech? For example, is it an attack on gay people, or an attempt to “reclaim” the slur? Is it an incitement of political protest through flag burning? Or, if the speaker or audience is British, is it an effort to discourage people from smoking cigarettes (fag being a common British term for cigarette)? To know whether it’s a hate speech violation, more context is needed.

Often a policy debate becomes a debate over hate speech, as two sides adopt inflammatory language. This is often the case with the immigration debate, whether it’s about the Rohingya in Southeast Asia, the refugee influx in Europe or immigration in the U.S. This presents a unique dilemma: On the one hand, we don’t want to stifle important policy conversations about how countries decide who can and can’t cross their borders. At the same time, we know that the discussion is often hurtful and insulting.

When the influx of migrants arriving in Germany increased in recent years, we received feedback that some posts on Facebook were directly threatening refugees or migrants. We investigated how this material appeared globally and decided to develop new guidelines to remove calls for violence against migrants or dehumanizing references to them—such as comparisons to animals, to filth or to trash. But we have left in place the ability for people to express their views on immigration itself. And we are deeply committed to making sure Facebook remains a place for legitimate debate.