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Facebook Hate Speech Problematic, Advocates Say


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Under pressure, Facebook recently said it will improve its efforts to weed out hate speech on the social network. Disability advocates say the move is long overdue.

Late last month Facebook acknowledged that it needs to do more to monitor and remove postings and pages featuring hate speech. The announcement came after a coalition of women’s rights groups successfully urged major companies to pull their advertisements from Facebook accusing the social network of including content promoting violence against women.

Many in the disability community have long complained about Facebook pages featuring questionable content and misappropriated photos of those with disabilities.

Hannah Jacobs, a New York City mother of a teen with intellectual disability, who has spent years actively working to report offensive Facebook pages said she continues to find content on the social network each day that she considers to be problematic. She’s flagged pages with names like “I Am Retarded,” “I Hate Fat People in Wheelchairs” and one called “Retards in Cages” which remained on Facebook as of Monday with a tag indicating that it’s “controversial humor.”

“It’s a little like playing Whac-A-Mole. One group down, two more pop up,” said Jacobs who runs Family Member, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting fair representations of people with disabilities in the media.

Jacobs’ efforts have won her meetings with Facebook officials in recent years. When she first spoke with the company, Jacobs said that disability wasn’t even an option on the drop-down menu to report problematic content. Today, users can tag content as hate speech “targeting people with a disability or disease” when reporting questionable material, but Jacobs says that the system is flawed — with many reports yielding no action — and progress with the social network has been “very slow.”

“I’m hoping that this time — now that it’s hit their bottom line — maybe it will make a difference,” she said.

In the company’s recent announcement, Facebook indicated that their definition of hate speech includes “direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people” including those based on disability. The company said it will update guidelines and training for team members who monitor reporting and will insist that individuals who post “cruel or insensitive” content that doesn’t qualify as hate speech do so under their real names.

“It has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want. In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria,” wrote Marne Levine, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, in a posting on the company’s website. “We need to do better — and we will.”

National disability advocacy groups say they regularly hear from constituents regarding questionable content on Facebook. In addition to pages and comments critical of people with special needs, complaints about misused photos — particularly of people with Down syndrome — are common, they say.

“We hope the focus on gender-based hate speech will lead to more scrutiny on hate speech toward those with disabilities,” said Jon Colman, president of the National Down Syndrome Society. “Our hope is Facebook will become a safer environment for people with Down syndrome who want to enjoy sharing their lives and photos, but there is a long way to go from where we are now.”

Meanwhile, Kerry Magro at Autism Speaks said his group has seen pages pop up on Facebook making fun of people with autism and indicated that the advocacy organization must be vigilant in monitoring its own Facebook page to remove comments critical of those with the developmental disorder. Magro said he is optimistic, however, that the social network’s recent move will be a step in the right direction.

“Hate speech along with cyberbullying have become huge issues on Facebook and we are hoping that this will lead to less hurtful words being shared,” said Magro, the social marketing coordinator at Autism Speaks.

Facebook officials did not respond to questions from Disability Scoop about how their efforts to address hate speech would apply specifically to content related to disability.

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Comments (8 Responses)

  1. Charles E Dudley Jr says:

    Yes it is wrong but if we of the Disability Community want full inclusion then we must be able to accept that full inclusion. No it is not right to put anybody down but this is life on life’s terms today. It has taken me 45 years to learn to not let others rent space in my head and I still fail at this but I keep worekin g at it and go about my own day. God bless one and all.

  2. Linda says:

    Considering that those with Intellectual disabilities are often not able to stick up for themselves, we as a society must stick up for them. We can’t assume that they can figure this out, they don’t often have the ability to do that for themselves, so we protect them. We can include those in any community and be kind, and we must be kind or what does that say about the rest of us. To say that to expect inclusion means we are allowed to expect anything of any group is ridiculous. We do the right thing, because it is the right thing, period.

  3. JA in NC says:

    The bottom line is my daily credo– Do Unto Others… I have banned the word “hate” and other derogatory words from my ears, mouth, & thought.
    Treat folk the same way YOU want to be treated. That’s it. So simple.
    Don’t people have better things to do than rip others to shreds? The “shredders” should walk a mile in others’ moccasins before uttering a word by mouth or in print, and then, as Archie Bunker said, “Stifle!”.

  4. Folly Darling says:

    Sadly I am so tired of all the politically correct acts to try to beat all the horses dead –despite the fact we are suppose to have free speech in this country. Let them be ignorant fools….their audience will dwindle in time. But instead of showing you are bigger than them, acting more positive—here are groups stepping all over free speech if it hurts their feelings. I am disabled, overweight because of it and heard lots of comments. Big deal. I have better things to do than let myself be dragged down to their level or even acknowledge them to give them fodder. By trying to cut their speech —-there may come a time that someone thinks what the advocates are saying is wrong. Take all this time to do positive things quit trying to make everyone like you immediately. You earn respect and trust by your actions. So out shine them!!!

  5. Whitney says:

    I think and this an observation. That inclusion does not mean acceptance automatically. I have other issues with Facebook than this one. It would be great that Facebook can do more than doing but people post whatever they feel on the site. So unless you want to regulate the first amendment which some posters will claim. There is nothing Facebook can really do. It is asking that schools stop bullying until society says it wrong or put more effort stop the activity from parents to teachers. Then bullying will persist this is another form of bullying. Facebook is not in the business of saying can think this or it is wrong to think that. Tolerance must be taught in schools or it will spread social media sites.

  6. Ian Brown says:

    Folly and Whitney – Respectfully, this has nothing to do with our first amendment right to free speech, which protects us from government censorship. Facebook is a private organization, not the government. Private organizations like Facebook, Disability Scoop, and the New York Times can choose which user-generated content they publish.

    Under the first amendment, the bigots have the right to spread their message of intolerance. The first amendment also protects our right to share our opinions about this content with Facebook and its advertisers. And Facebook has the first amendment right to eliminate content as it sees fit.

  7. Paulie says:

    Hear, hear, there are many places (unfortunately) where like-minded people can express their hatred for certain groups. Facebook should take the stance that it’s their website and therefore if anyone wants to participate they have to play by their rules. If someone doesn’t like it, they can start their own hate forum (which, again, unfortunately, there are far too many on the internet).

    Facebook does not owe anyone the right of free speech so that argument doesn’t hold. Anymore than someone has the right of free speech to stand in your front yard to scream obscentities at you. I was on a website recently and read their terms of service. They stated they do not allow cursing in posters’ comments. They said if ANYONE DOESN’T like it, they could leave and set up their own website and do what THEY wanted with it, but the website was theirs to make the rules as they wish. Facebook is not a government entity.

    How a society treats its disabled, its women, and its children says a lot about that society. We have a very poor record indeed.

  8. Dee says:

    You know, it hasn’t been but a couple of weeks since I posted on FB’s page that the disability community is no longer passive and easily punched around with no way to fight back. Instead, we now vote, AND we file complaints with sponsors. I advised them to ask Rush Limbaugh how ignoring the will of the people is working out for him.

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