A small newspaper in East Texas ran afoul of Facebook’s algorithms in the summer of 2018, after their posting portions of the Declaration of Independence for the July 4 holiday was deemed to have violated the social network’s hate speech standards.
In the run-up to Independence Day, the Vindicator newspaper, which serves Liberty County, about 40 miles north-east of Houston, published the text of the Declaration of Independence on their Facebook page, in twelve separate posts between 24 June and 4 July.
According to The Vindicator (information that was later corroborated by a Facebook spokesperson) the tenth excerpt did not appear on the newspaper’s Facebook page, despite being scheduled to publish on 2 July. The text of that post read as follows:
The Vindicator again this year challenges readers to read through the Declaration of Independence. This year we offer it to readers here in small bites, one a day until July 4th.
Part 10 (continuing the colonists’ complaints about King George III):
“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.”
In their article (published under the headline “Facebook’s program thinks Declaration of Independence is hate speech”) The Vindicator reported that:
Somewhere in paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote something that Facebook finds offensive … 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.
The following day, Facebook restored the post in question and apologized to The Vindicator in an email the newspaper quoted as follows:
It looks like we made a mistake and removed something you posted on Facebook that didn’t go against our Community Standards. We want to apologize and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action.
A spokesperson for the social network told us that “The post was removed by mistake and restored as soon as we looked into it. We process millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.”
The Vindicator‘s managing editor Casey Stinnett speculated that Facebook’s algorithms were alerted by the use of the phrase “Indian Savages” in the excerpt from the Declaration, something that a spokesperson for the social network confirmed to us in an email, noting that context is crucial in how Facebook evaluates potential hate speech and bigoted slurs.
That the phrase “Indian savages” could be hate speech, depending upon the context in which it appeared, was not disputed even by observers who were critical of Facebook in this episode, such as the libertarian web site Reason:
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.
Neither Facebook’s algorithms nor their employees labelled the Declaration of Independence, as a whole, as hate speech. Headlines in some news reports (including The Vindicator‘s own) have been misleading in this respect, suggesting that the social network had determined the entire text of the document was in violation of Facebook standards. However, the other eleven out of twelve excerpts from the document did not alert even Facebook’s automated standards filters.
Stinnett, Casey. “Facebook’s Program Thinks Declaration of Independence Is Hate Speech.”
The Vindicator. 2 July 2018.
Allan, Richard. “Hard Questions: Who Should Decide What Is Hate Speech in an Online Global Community?”
Facebook. 27 June 2017.
Britschgi, Christian. “Facebook Algorithm Flags, Removes Declaration of Independence Text as Hate Speech.”
Reason. 3 July 2018.
Wheaton, Oliver. “Facebook Apologizes for Flagging Declaration of Independence as Hate Speech.”
The Independent. 6 July 2018.
Kozlowska, Hanna. “Facebook Removed the US Declaration of Independence for Violating ‘Hate Speech’ Standards.”
Quartz. 5 July 2018.