Posted on November 23, 2021

Facebook’s Race-Blind Practices Around Hate Speech Came at the Expense of Black Users

Elizabeth Dwoskin et al., Washington Post, November 21, 2021

Last year, researchers at Facebook showed executives an example of the kind of hate speech circulating on the social network: an actual post featuring an image of four female Democratic lawmakers known collectively as “The Squad.”

The poster, whose name was scrubbed out for privacy, referred to the women, two of whom are Muslim, as “swami rag heads.” A comment from another person used even more vulgar language, referring to the four women of color as “black c—s,” according to internal company documents exclusively obtained by The Washington Post.

The post represented the “worst of the worst” language on Facebook — the majority of it directed at minority groups, according to a two-year effort by a large team working across the company, the document said. The researchers urged executives to adopt an aggressive overhaul of its software system that would primarily remove only those hateful posts before any Facebook users could see them.

But Facebook’s leaders balked at the plan. According to two people familiar with the internal debate, top executives including Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan feared the new system would tilt the scales by protecting some vulnerable groups over others. A policy executive prepared a document for Kaplan that raised the potential for backlash from “conservative partners,” according to the document. {snip}

The previously unreported debate is an example of how Facebook’s decisions in the name of being neutral and race-blind in fact come at the expense of minorities and particularly people of color. Far from protecting Black and other minority users, Facebook executives wound up instituting half-measures after the “worst of the worst” project that left minorities more likely to encounter derogatory and racist language on the site, the people said.

“Even though [Facebook executives] don’t have any animus toward people of color, their actions are on the side of racists,” said Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook manager working on political ads and CEO of the Voter Formation Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses digital communication to increase participation in local state and national elections. “You are saying that the health and safety of women of color on the platform is not as important as pleasing your rich White man friends.”

The Black audience on Facebook is in decline, according to data from a study Facebook conducted earlier this year that was revealed in documents obtained by whistleblower Frances Haugen. According to the February report, the number of Black monthly users fell 2.7 percent in one month to 17.3 million adults. It also shows that usage by Black people peaked in September 2020. Haugen’s legal counsel provided redacted versions of the documents to Congress, which were viewed by a consortium of news organizations including The Post.

Civil rights groups have long claimed that Facebook’s algorithms and policies had a disproportionately negative impact on minorities, and particularly Black users. The “worst of the worst” documents show that those allegations were largely true in the case of which hate speech remained online.

But Facebook didn’t disclose its findings to civil rights leaders. Even the independent civil rights auditors Facebook hired in 2018 to conduct a major study of racial issues on its platform say they were not informed of the details of research that the company’s algorithms disproportionately harmed minorities. {snip}


The auditors, in the report they released last year, still concluded that Facebook’s policy decisions were a “tremendous setback” for civil rights.


Yet racist posts against minorities weren’t what Facebook’s own hate speech detection algorithms were most commonly finding. The software, which the company introduced in 2015, was supposed to detect and automatically delete hate speech before users saw it. Publicly, the company said in 2019 that its algorithms proactively caught more than 80 percent of hate speech.

But this statistic hid a serious problem that was obvious to researchers: The algorithm was aggressively detecting comments denigrating White people more than attacks on every other group, according to several of the documents. One April 2020 document said roughly 90 percent of “hate speech” subject to content takedowns were statements of contempt, inferiority and disgust directed at White people and men, though the time frame is unclear. And it consistently failed to remove the most derogatory, racist content. The Post previously reported on a portion of the project.

Researchers also found in 2019 that the hate speech algorithms were out of step with actual reports of harmful speech on the platform. In that year, the researchers discovered that 55 percent of the content users reported to Facebook as most harmful was directed at just four minority groups: Blacks, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and Jews, according to the documents.

One of the reasons for these errors, the researchers discovered, was that Facebook’s “race-blind” rules of conduct on the platform didn’t distinguish among the targets of hate speech. In addition, the company had decided not to allow the algorithms to automatically delete many slurs, according to the people, on the grounds that the algorithms couldn’t easily tell the difference when a slur such as the n-word and the c-word was used positively or colloquially within a community. The algorithms were also over-indexing on detecting less harmful content that occurred more frequently, such as “men are pigs,” rather than finding less common but more harmful content.


In December 2019, researchers on the “worst of the worst,” which came to be known as Project WoW, were ready to deliver their findings from two years of work to key company leaders, including Kaplan and head of global policy management Monika Bickert.

They were proposing a major overhaul of the hate speech algorithm. From now on, the algorithm would be narrowly tailored to automatically remove hate speech against only five groups of people — those who are Black, Jewish, LGBTQ, Muslim or of multiple races — that users rated as most severe and harmful. {snip}


In February 2020, Kaplan and other leaders reviewed the proposal — and quickly rejected the most substantive changes. They felt the changes too narrowly protected just a few groups, while leaving out others, exposing the company to criticism, according to three of the people. For example, the proposal would not have allowed the automatic deletion of comments against Mexicans or women. The document prepared for Kaplan referenced that some “conservative partners” might resist the change because they think that “hate targeted toward trans people is an expression of opinion.”

When asked for comment on Kaplan bending to conservatives, Facebook’s Stone said that Kaplan’s objection to the proposal was because of the types of hate speech it would no longer automatically delete.


But Kaplan and the other executives did give the green light to a version of the project that would remove the least harmful speech, according to Facebook’s own study: programming the algorithms to stop automatically taking down content directed at White people, Americans and men. {snip}