Activists are speaking up about what they’ve identified as a discriminatory censorship policy by the powers that be at Facebook. They claim the social network unfairly targets and suspends the accounts of black users who talk about race — but activists say the only “crime” those users are guilty of is”Facebooking while black.”
The allegedly racist phenomenon has been dubbed “getting Zucked,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, according to USA Today. Critics say it seems to occur when a black user posts a racial comment, question or opinion — especially one that challenges the status quo.
In February, teacher and activist Carolyn Wysinger shared a sensitive post about a shocking claim by actor Liam Neeson. He disclosed that after a close friend was raped by a black man a long time ago, he’d sought revenge by roaming the streets to find any black man at all to kill.
Wysinger’s post pointed out that Neeson’s statements, and his widely publicized “apology tour,” were overshadowing what would have been the 24th birthday of Trayvon Martin, the black teen who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012 in what has become one of the most notorious examples of racial profiling in the nation’s history.
Wysinger, who also hosts a podcast that addresses racial politics, captioned her post, “White men are so fragile, and the mere presence of a black person challenges every single thing in them.” She told USA Today that Facebook deleted her post within 15 minutes, flagging it as “hate speech” that violated the platform’s community standards.
Critics of the “Facebooking while black” censorship phenomenon liken the suspension punishments, which can last anywhere from minutes to weeks, to being sent to “Facebook jail.” Wysinger said that the social network warned her that if she posted her banned update again, she was figuratively incarcerated for 72 hours.
This kind of reaction to calling out racism is all too common when it comes to black Facebook users, according to Wysinger and others on her side of the debate.
Conceptual artist Natasha Marin was a recent victim of Facebook’s perceived racist streak. After starting a social media project with the intention of spreading “black joy,” she posted a screenshot of a racist message she had received. She was promptly banned for three days, and had very ambivalent feelings about the ordeal.
“For me as a black woman, this platform has allowed me to say and do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” she said to USA Today. “Facebook is also a place that has allowed things like death threats against me and my children. And Facebook is responsible for the fact that I am completely desensitized to the N-word.”
Back in 2017, Faceboook penalized prominent black activist and writer Ijeoma Oluo after she wrote about her trip to Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain that has made headlines for settling racial discrimination lawsuits.
“At Cracker Barrel 4 the 1st time,” Oluo wrote. “Looking at the sea of white folk in cowboy hats & wondering ‘will they let my black ass walk out of here?'” Soon after, Oluo said she became the target of racist attacks on both Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter reacted swiftly by shutting down accounts and removing tweets, according to USA Today. But Facebook decided to suspend Oluo’s account after she posted screenshots of the racist tirades on her profile. The activist said this caused her to break down crying.
“I write and speak about race in America because I already see this hate every day,” Oluo wrote after she was banned. “It’s the complicity of one of the few platforms that people of color have to speak out about this hate that gets me.”
Facebook went on to apologize to Oluo, pledging to revise its practices for dealing with racially sensitive posts. A spokesperson at the time said, “We know how painful it is when someone feels unwelcome or attacked on our platform, and how much worse it must be when they are prevented from sharing that experience with others.”
But critics reject the mea culpa from Facebook in instances like this. “Every black person I know who has been suspended for confronting racism on Facebook has gotten the same ‘this was a mistake’ response,” Oluo said. “It is not a mistake if it keeps happening.”
Black activists charge that any censorship and hate speech policies created by white male-dominated companies like Facebook are inherently flawed. Many argue that Facebook’s gatekeepers cannot — or do not — distinguish between racist talk, like harassment and slurs, and simply talking about racism. Wysinger called the mislabeling “exhausting” and said fighting against it “drains you emotionally.”
Black Facebook users have even resorted to using workarounds to avoid censorship for discussing or even just mentioning race. Substituting emojis and slang spellings are two popular techniques, says USA Today. Some even create aliases or backup Facebook accounts. But it doesn’t always work. In the worst-case scenarios, people have been cut off from contacts for months or lost the access to a business page moderated by their suspended account.
And at least one of Facebook’s ex-employees has gone on the record to say racial discrimination even exists inside the company’s headquarters. Mark Luckie made his declaration in an essay he distributed to every single Facebook employee — and posted, of all places, on Facebook.
“Facebook has a black people problem,” he wrote, before detailing how “underrepresented groups are being systematically excluded from communication.”
Neil Potts, the public policy director of Facebook, indirectly addressed the accusations by black activists in 2018 when he acknowledged that Facebook often confuses commentary on racism and racist attacks on a “protected” group of people, including people of color.
But the company is “exploring additional refinements to our hate speech policy that will perhaps help remedy some of these situations,” Potts said. To that end, Facebook is conducting research and working harder at fine-tuning its censorship practices and learning to recognize when marginalized users are “speaking to power.”
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