Leaked documents on how Facebook deals with violent, explicit and harassing content, as published in the Guardian, further exposes the challenges the social network faces in policing the posts of its nearly 2 billion users. It also shows that its censorship problem may not be solvable any time soon.
The Guardian’s report illustrated how stressful and fast-paced the environment is for Facebook’s content moderators. They often only have 10 seconds to review something, and the guidelines that govern what is acceptable on the site are not always consistent.
Facebook did not comment on whether the documents were accurate, but did not dispute their accuracy either. “We work hard to make Facebook as safe as possible while enabling free speech,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of Global Policy Management, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This requires a lot of thought into detailed and often difficult questions, and getting it right is something we take very seriously.”
The Guardian highlighted phrases or texts from the documents that moderators might come across. Take, for instance, these two examples.
Do you think it’s ok to post, “Someone shoot Trump”? How about a post saying that the best way to snap a woman’s neck is to “make sure to apply all your pressure to the middle of her throat”?
Per Facebook’s rules, the Guardian reported, the first is not allowed because it refers to someone — in this case a head of state — who is in a “protected category.” The second is permissible, according to the documents.
In the case of video, which is a growing area for Facebook, context also matters. Even something such as violent death is not always black and white. Facebook looks at the issue this way, per the documents: “Videos of violent deaths are disturbing but can help create awareness. For videos, we think minors need protection and adults need a choice. We mark as ‘disturbing’ videos of the violent deaths of humans.”
Experts acknowledged the challenges Facebook faces, but said the discussion around censorship would have been easier if the company had released its guidelines by itself.
“Visibility shouldn’t be an enemy to Facebook,” said Benjamin Burroughs, professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “It would let people see the decisions that they make and see how hard they are.”
Earlier this month chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said that even adding an additional 3,000 workers to its vetting team would not solve the issue.
“No matter how many people we have on the team, we’ll never be able to look at everything,” Zuckerberg said in an earnings call earlier this month.
The company is working with artificial intelligence to address the problem too, but that won’t fix everything and it will take time for it to become useful, Zuckerberg added on the call.
Facebook will never please everyone, experts said. Mary Anne Franks, professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said that Facebook and its users should not get wrapped up in how a private company running a free service deals with the First Amendment.
Getting past the debate about speech, Franks said, would allow for a more useful conversation “about the principles Facebook should be using instead.”