Does that seem dramatic? But it’s the truth. Facebook has repeatedly banned a quote from St. Augustine every time I’ve posted it. And it’s not some fire and brimstone “Sinners are going to hell!” quote, but in fact, quite the opposite.
Earlier this week, I saw my friend, Fr. Matt Wescott, post the quote from St. Augustine on his wall. It’s a quote from a homily by St. Augustine of Hippo, a sermon that is contained in the official liturgical books of the Catholic Church because it is part of the Office of Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office).
Here is the quote:
“Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.”
As Fr. Matt said to me, he never received an explanation from Facebook, but that he’s “virtually certain it’s still the algorithm” taking it down because, as he says, the quote itself is challenging but inoffensive.
Then our friend, Fr. Chip Hines, posted it on his wall because he thought Facebook was being ridiculous and wanted to see if the same thing happened and it did. He has requested human review of the takedown and is still waiting.
So being the kind of guy who knows a bit about these things and curious about why it was happening I posted it too. Some friends saw my post and re-shared it. Then this happened.
Hate speech? It’s the opposite of hate speech. It’s calling for people to stop focusing on others’ sins and concentrate on their own. Augustine is just re-formulating Jesus’ own words from the Gospel: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) So I took the option they give of asking to have the takedown reviewed by a human being. As I write this, I’m still waiting. But in the meantime I posted that screenshot above, which began to receive notice. Eventually it was shared over 600 times and I know even more people were reposting the quote fresh.
Then this happened.
This is getting really ridiculous. If I keep at it, it will be a mastrushka of bans. Actually, no it won’t because Facebook warned me that if I get another takedown, I will have my account suspended. This would be a problem for me because I would not be able to manage my Facebook pages for work and so I’m keeping my powder dry. I did post this last screen capture on Twitter and have mentioned the takedown on Facebook without including the quote.
Violating Community Standards
Some friends who have posted the quote themselves have said they have theirs taken down, while others have not. Part of the problem here is that this takedown notice leaves me with no understanding of how I violated their policy. When I click that “continue” button, it tells me that:
We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation. We separate attacks into three tiers of severity, as described below.
If you read Facebook’s own descriptions of what it considers hate speech, you will see they divide it into three tiers of the kinds of hate speech. You can read them for yourself, but I’m still struggling to understand why this quote from St. Augustine is defined as hate speech, when I see much, much worse kinds of speech every day on Facebook. Heck, I see stuff that isn’t all that bad that is worse than the Augustine quote.
Arbitrary and Capricious
This makes it the worst kind of rule: Where you don’t know where the line is. At this point, I don’t even know what kind of post will land me a suspension because there’s no clear indicator of why this quote is a violation, but others aren’t. It’s completely arbitrary and capricious.
Imagine a law that was passed that had the same arbitrary vagueness. Let’s say, the law said, “If you drive too fast you’ll get a ticket,” but it doesn’t say what “too fast” means. Maybe for one policeman it’s 30 mph and another it’s 50 for the same stretch of road. It’s madness.
Even if this was just one person with a grudge against Christians and not a badly programmed algorithm, it’s still a stultifying suppression of free speech in what has become a public square run by a private company. When you can’t be certain whether your ability to say things that would be constitutionally protected on a public street will get you banned from the platform that a supermajority of people in the United States use as their platform of daily free expression, it doesn’t bode well for where we are going.
As a conservative, I’m biased against government intervention into free enterprise. But I also recognize that sometimes regulation and legislation are necessary to protect the rights of citizens against the agendas of certain groups of people or corporations. I’m starting to lean toward the necessity of the US government regulating social media firms as public utilities. Because Big Brother isn’t just from the government any more.
Update: Facebook’s human review has been completed, and no surprise, they have rejected my appeal. They did invite me to respond to their rejection and this is what I wrote:
I still don’t understand why this is hate speech. It’s a quote from a Catholic saint who expresses the opposite of hate speech. He is essentially restating the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospels to stop worrying about what the other guy is or isn’t doing and worry about your own flaws. Is Facebook saying that the Gospel is hate speech? But what’s worse is that I have no more understanding now of what is a violation of your community standards than I did before. I cannot for the life of me figure out why you label this hate speech.
So now Facebook users can enjoy the feeling of wondering if this seemingly innocuous quote from the Bible or that word of encouragement from a saint will land you in Facebook jail. Because they’re certainly not telling us.
Update 2: Sorry for the delayed update, folks, but we were away on vacation this past week (great timing!) and I was unable to get decent internet access to edit this post. Anyway, Facebook did eventually reverse its decision and I got a form email informing me of that. I noticed that others who’d had their posts removed also had them restored. As I said several times, I’m still left with the same conclusion, which is that Facebook’s standards are too arbitrary and their process too opaque for any user to have any confidence that any particular post of theirs will be judged unacceptable for some reason. Facebook has to fix that.
I would encourage you to check out the episode of the podcast Raising the Betts, in which I discuss the matter up to Sunday, July 14, and then listen to the upcoming July 25 episode of Secrets of Technology, in which I will do a more complete followup.