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Facebook changing 'race-blind' hate speech policy

Facebook on Thursday, December 3, said it is revising its systems to prioritize blocking slurs against Black people, gays and other groups historically targeted by vitriol, no longer automatically filtering out barbs aimed broadly at whites, men or Americans.

The change in Facebook's algorithm is a shift from the social network's ethnicity and gender-neutral system that removed anti-white comments and posts such as "Men are dumb" or "Americans are stupid."

"We know that hate speech targeted towards under-represented groups can be the most harmful, which is why we have focused our technology on finding the hate speech that users and experts tell us is the most serious," said Facebook spokeswoman Sally Aldous.

The changes are to the leading social network's automated systems, meaning hateful posts about whites, men or Americans that are reported by users will still be deleted if they violate Facebook policies.

Over the past year, Facebook has also updated its policies to catch more implicit hate speech, such as depictions of blackface and stereotypes about Jewish people, Aldous noted.

"Thanks to significant investments in our technology we proactively detect 95% of the content we remove and we continue to improve how we enforce our rules as hate speech evolves over time," Aldous said.

The software tweak will initially target the most blatant slurs, including those against Black people, Muslims, people of more than one race, the LGBTQ community and Jews, Facebook said.

'Long overdue'

The move comes as the company faces pressure from civil rights groups that have long complained it does too little to police hate speech. 

Earlier this year, more than 1,000 advertisers boycotted Facebook to protest its handling of hate speech and misinformation.

"This is an important and long overdue step forward," Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said.

The ADL and other groups have advocated for Facebook to better fight anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and "all forms of extremism," according to Greenblatt.

"While we are encouraged that Facebook is attacking the most serious symptoms of the disease that it permitted to spread for so many years, we need to see additional steps to cure the sickness of hate on social media," Greenblatt said.

Facebook and other social platforms have been condemned for failing to stop abusive and hateful content including organized violence such as the massacre of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty near Paris.

Facebook has been adamant that it is vigilant when it comes to policing hate speech, calls for violence and disinformation.

The company said that since August it identified more 600 militarized social movements, and removed their pages or accounts, part of an effort that took down 22.1 million posts containing "hate speech."

Social problem?

Critics of Facebook and other social networks argue they should be held accountable for violence organized on their platforms, calling for reforms of a law that shields internet services from liability for content posted by third parties.

But some analysts argue the platforms can't bear full responsibility for deep social problems which have led to extremism and violence in the streets.

Facebook and others have long grappled with how to purge toxic content while fending off accusations they are stifling free expression.

The internet giant and its rival Twitter have been taken to task on Capitol Hill by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

On Wednesday, Twitter said it was expanding its definition of hateful content to ban language which "dehumanizes" people on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

Twitter said it would remove offending tweets when they are reported, and offered examples such as describing a particular ethnic group as "scum" or "leeches." – Rappler.com