How does Facebook decide what to censor? Advocacy groups want to know

Seventy-three advocacy groups sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, asking for transparency in how the world’s largest social network censors content.

Organizations such as SumofUs, Color of Change, the ACLU and others say they’re worried about how Facebook’s removal of content, and cooperation with law enforcement and the government, affect human rights.

The “organizations are deeply concerned with the recent cases of Facebook censoring human rights documentation, particularly content that depicts police violence,” the letter says. “This includes but is not limited to: the deactivation of Korryn Gaines’ account, the removal of iconic photographs, reports of suppression of indigenous resistance, continued reports of Black activists’ content being removed, and the disabling of Palestinian journalists’ accounts following your meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister.”

We’ve covered some of the instances mentioned in the letter. In July, the company temporarily took down a Facebook Live video that showed the aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota. Gaines’ account was disabled by Facebook after she posted videos of herself on Instagram during a standoff with police near Baltimore in August. Facebook took heat last month for censoring the “Napalm Girl” photo, an iconic symbol of the Vietnam War.

“When the most vulnerable members of society turn to your platform to document and share experiences of injustice, Facebook is morally obligated to protect that speech,” the groups, which also include Demand Progress and the Sierra Club, say in the letter.

The letter comes after Facebook recently said it would back off some censorship to allow content that might even violate its standards if it’s deemed important or newsworthy, and subsequent stories about how Facebook decides what content stays or goes. Reuters reported that there is a handful of high-level company executives, including COO Sheryl Sandberg, who can override what content gets censored. The Wall Street Journal reported that Zuckerberg intervened when some employees wanted to remove some of Donald Trump’s posts as hate speech. Still, as Michelle Quinn wrote last week, it’s unclear what Facebook’s guidelines are.

The groups are calling on Facebook to make its censorship policies clear and accessible to the public; create a censorship-appeals process; audit the social network’s decisions and their effect on “equity and human rights,” then create a task force; and refuse to disclose customer content and data unless required by law.

An ACLU report a couple of weeks ago revealed that Facebook and the photo-sharing social network it owns, Instagram, have provided user data to companies that help police track activists and protesters.

Update: Facebook has received the letter and is reviewing it, a spokeswoman told SiliconBeat in an email. “As we recently said, we welcome feedback from our community as we begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest,” she said.


Photo from AFP/Getty Images


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