Facebook removed the US Declaration of Independence for violating “hate speech” standards

Image: W.L. Ormsby/Library of Congress via AP
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The Vindicator, a local newspaper in Liberty, Texas, decided to post the US Declaration of Independence on Facebook in small chunks in the days leading up to the July 4 holiday, which celebrates adopting the historical document in 1776. Facebook’s content moderation system took issue with part of the Declaration, and took down the paper’s post.

Casey Stinnett, The Vindicator’s managing editor, speculated that the offending language in a fragment of the document that refers to King George III was a mention of Native Americans:

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.

A Facebook spokesperson told Quartz that taking down the Declaration was a mistake, and that indeed, it was the phrase “Indian Savages” that could have violated their standards in a different context. “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,” a spokesperson said in a statement. The platform has since reinstated the post, and apologized to The Vindicator.

Facebook, which controls content on its platform through a combination of AI and human review, frequently struggles with mistaking legitimate content for hate speech, and vice versa, leaving up posts that are objectionable, and have lead to real-life violence.

In his story describing the snafu, Stinnett raises another issue with the platform: the troubled relationship between Facebook and the media. He argues that his paper uses Facebook for free, “so the newspaper has little grounds for complaint other than the silliness of it.”

But Stinnett also acknowledges how entrenched Facebook has become in many publication’s businesses: ”The problem The Vindicator faces is that it has become dependent, perhaps too dependent, on Facebook to communicate with local residents and to promote the newspaper.”

The paper questioned whether to put up the rest of the Declaration of Independence after the removal, because if Facebook found more content to be unpalatable, The Vindicator could lose its page on the platform, and thus a crucial way to disseminate its content.

While larger publications have been suffering from Facebook’s decision to lessen the number of news stories in the News Feed, the company has pledged that it would support local journalism.

This post has been updated with comment from Facebook.