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Facebook Censorship Social Networks

Facebook's Complaint Process Is Arbitrary — But So Is Campaigning 114

Bennett Haselton writes "After initial abuse reports failed to shut down some anti-women and pro-rape pages on Facebook, a wider lobbying campaign succeeded in prompting a Facebook policy change. This has been alternately hailed as a vindication of the campaigner's cause, or derided as proof that Facebook can be cowed by humorless feminists. In reality, the success of the campaign was most likely the outcome of a mostly arbitrary and random process that required a lot of luck, just as the initial abuse reports didn't succeed because they didn't have the necessary luck on their side. Neither result should be taken to reflect on the merits of the campaigner's actual points." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts.
On May 28th, Facebook released a statement acknowledging that it had not responded effectively to complaints against pages containing "gender-based hate speech" (e.g. "Slapping hookers in the face with a shoe." and several much worse examples glorifying rape or violence). The decision came at the end of the "#fbrape" campaign by feminist groups to pressure advertisers whose ads had been appearing on the most offensive pages; major advertisers like Nissan announced that they were withdrawing advertisements from Facebook until they could be assured their ads would not appear on the pages in question (most of which were ultimately shut down by Facebook).

I've written before about the arbitrariness of Facebook's abuse-report process, and in particular how it can be abused by convening a "flash mob" of users to file abuse reports about pieces of content that they want removed, even when that content doesn't violate Facebook's terms. The solution I proposed, briefly, was for Facebook to sign up, say, 100,000 volunteers (or even paid users) to review "abuse reports." and when an abuse report is received, have the report evaluated by a random subset of 100 of those volunteers, to vote on whether the report is legitimate. The decision whether to remove the content can be based on what percent of those 100 users vote that it violates the terms of service. The nice property of this system is that it can't be manipulated by conscripting a "flash mob" of users to file complaints all at once — no matter how many mobsters you have filing abuse reports, if your complaints don't have merit, they won't pass the random-sample review (unless you manage to control a significant proportion of the 100,000 users that the 100 users are randomly selected from, but that would be a very tall order).

This also means that no abuse complaint would be ignored because too few people submitted it — any abusive content that was reported, would trigger the 100-user review. (Or if you thought cranks would waste too much of the reviewers' time by filing phone abuse reports, you could only trigger the 100-user review after, say, 3 people had complained about a given page. Or you could start ignoring complaints from users after they had filed a certain number of complaints that were all rejected by the 100-user review process.) Readers suggested various improvements to the algorithm and pointed out potential problems, but I think the basic idea is still sound.

Some of the abusive pages cited by the #fbrape campaigners, are truly graphic and offensive, certainly in violation of Facebook's "community standards" against "hate speech." If they had been reviewed by a 100-user random sample, they probably would have been removed. As it is, the complaints probably landed in the lap of some $1-an-hour grunt worker who ignored them (Facebook's opacity in regards to its review process gives us little more information than that). If the complainers had been luckier, perhaps the abuse reports might have gotten noticed by someone more proactive.

So even if the #fbrape campaigners didn't put it in these terms, their gripe was essentially that the Facebook complaint review process leads to arbitrary outcomes, and the complaints didn't gain traction because luck wasn't on their side.

But what about the #fbrape campaign itself, to bring the pages to Facebook's attention through media action, after the initial abuse reports were ignored?

This is probably an example of what could be called the "Salganik Effect." Matthew Salganik is a Princeton University professor who in 2006 conducted a study examining how certain songs became popular in simulated worlds in which users could rate songs and recommend them to their friends. In his simulation, he divided users into eight artificial "worlds" in which the users in a given world could only see the ratings and recommendations from other users within that world. Then each world was seeded with the same set of songs to see which songs grew in popularity. His team found that the set of songs which became "successful." varied wildly between worlds — such that within any given world, although the very worst songs never came popular, the set of songs that did become popular were essentially a random selection from among those that were merely "good enough."

Online movements gain traction through such a similar process — users 'liking' a page or recommending it to friends, recommendations radiating out from the popular elite according to Malcolm Gladwell's "Law of the Few -- that this suggests the success of a campaign like #fbrape could have been the result of an arbitrary process dominated by luck, just like the success of a song in one of Salganik's artificial worlds. We can never know for sure, since we can't divide real-life Facebook users into multiple artificial worlds, or re-run history to see how often the outcome would be different. But you should read Everything Is Obvious* (Once You Know The Answer), a book written by Duncan J. Watts, one of the co-authors of Salganik's study. The book argues that many of the outcomes that seem like foregone conclusions in hindsight, such as the success of a product, twitter meme, company, idea, or person, are really the result of an arbitrary process that is impossible to predict, much less control. If you liked Freakonomics or Thinking, Fast And Slow, you should add Everything Is Obvious to your reading list right away.

In the case of the #fbrape campaign, the strong form of the conclusion would be to say that the success of the campaign is probably the outcome of a random process. But everyone should at least agree with the weak form of the conclusion, which is that the success and failures of online campaigns could be a random process — and that it's a mistake to say that the success of a campaign definitely is determined by the merits of the campaign's ideas or by the efforts of the campaign organizers. If we can't prove how much luck has to do with it, we have to acknowledge that it could be quite a lot.

That doesn't mean the #fbrape campaign didn't have merit. Like the songs in Salganik's artificial worlds that were "good enough" to succeed if given the chance, the #fbrape campaign organizers did have a point. But we shouldn't take the phenomenal success of the campaign to mean that they had that much more of a valid point than many other campaigns which fizzled out due to bad luck. (Thus I think that articles like this one by Sandy Garossino, even if they're right about the problem of pro-rape content, are missing the point insofar as they imply that the movement's success was due to the hard work of the "smartest feminists on the planet." It's a bit early to declare that "On May 27th, women won the Internet.")

The initial complaints failed because of an arbitrary process, and then the #fbrape campaign succeeded because of an equally arbitrary process. The next such awareness campaign, even if it has merit, might not have luck on its side.

The arbitrariness in both of these processes can be fixed. For the first process — abuse reports submitted to Facebook — the fix is easy: have each complaint reviewed by a random subset of volunteers or employees who are signed up to review such content, as described above. This makes the outcome dependent on the attributes of the content itself (as it should be), rather than luck and/or the size of the mob that wants something removed.

The arbitrariness in the second process — the process by which memes "catch fire" and spill over into mainstream media and broader awareness — is a taller order, but I think it can be fixed by essentially the same algorithm. What would be required would be for a site that has the power to make new memes through its sheer dominance, like Google+ or Reddit, to implement the random-sample-voting algorithm for memes and calls-to-action. Any user can submit an argument — very broadly, any type of exhortation that "we" should do "something" -- and these arguments could be reviewed by a random sample of, say, 20 other users on the site. Those arguments that have the highest percentage of "Yes" votes would get promoted on the front page. (This is the algorithm I was pushing in a previous article, Censorship By Glut.)

The system sounds deceptively simple, but note what's missing: You can't manipulate the voting by rallying your friends to vote for your idea (or by creating multiple "sockpuppet" accounts to vote up your own post). You don't even have the accidental Salganik effects, where friend-to-friend recommendations result in a chaotic feedback loop where certain ideas race ahead of others due to random factors that have nothing to do with the idea's merits. You've taken the arbitrariness out of the process, so that the fate of the idea is a function only of the attributes of the idea itself, which determines the percentage of randomly sampled users who vote it up. (This is not quite the same as rewarding the ideas with the most "merit" — rather, it's the ideas that the population being sampled perceive to have the most merit — but at least the outcome is not random, and the system cannot be gamed.)

Meanwhile, I hope that Facebook won't err too far on the side of abolishing sexist humor where the humor is in proportion to the offensiveness. In Women, Action & the Media's list of examples of "gender-based hate speech." they included a Facebook page titled "Hope you have pet insurance because I'm about to destroy your pussy." which I would optimistically like to think refers to enthusiastic sex and not rape. (The humor really derives from the fact that the words appear next to a physically unattractive man, which is one group that feminists never seem to get riled up about defending.) And what about jokes about anti-male violence, which were left out of WAM's examples? A friend of mine likes posting things on his Facebook like "I was trying to remember the name of Rihanna's ex, and then it hit me," which I thought was funny, but which some WAM supporters probably would have reported as "abusive content." I wonder how many of those same people would have filed a report if he'd said, "I was about to say the name of Lorena Bobbitt's ex, but I got cut off."
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Facebook's Complaint Process Is Arbitrary — But So Is Campaigning

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  • by TheRealHocusLocus ( 2319802 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @01:48PM (#44009145)

    So tired of this glass three-quarters full smiley touchy feely people are nice crap. Why anyone would produce a social network with the scale of human emotion reduced to 'positive' dandelion buttery-chinned goodness... I cannot imagine.

    Bring on an equal measure of opposition and disagreement. Not just an absence of 'like'.

    • by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @01:55PM (#44009239)

      How about not using friggin' Facebook at all?

      • How about not using friggin' Facebook at all?

        I wouldn't if I just had some friggin' friends on Slashdot.

        (Checking again) Nope.

        • by Seumas ( 6865 )

          How about having friends in real life? Then you don't need facebook or anything similar at all.

          My account consists of nothing but an image that says my email address and says if you want to talk with me, you should know how to reach me and if you don't know how to reach me, use my email address -- but either way, never expect a response on FB, because I don't use it.

          People like to throw the excuse around that they just use facebook because "it's where all my friends are" or "to keep in touch with family", b

    • by gmuslera ( 3436 )
      There are a lot of things that you disagree that you just don't see (fortunately, in some cases). And there are a lot of people that believe in things that are just not real, or "wrong" by any scientific measure. So or you rig the representation not getting close,or getting a lot of the "wrong" people close you rig everything. The only way to win is not play the game. Just don't login.
    • You can just ignore it, hide the person entirely, or comment on why you are unable to ignore their post and let them know you hate it.

      "Like" is just shorthand for: "I read this and it pleased me." On message boards that this option is unavailable, you get 30 "I liked this!" "Great Post!" etc before you get to actual comments and I really wish every board would implement "Like" already.

      On the other hand, hate could mean "I hate everything you post" "I hate that you didn't invite me" "I have a counterargument

    • Facebook defines Negative Feedback as:

      • Hide: hide this story
      • Hide All: hide all stories from a Page
        Report Spam
        Unlike Page

  • Facebook (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    People are still on Facebook? Even as Zuck the Fuck is trying to change laws to give Americans' jobs to foreigners? Even as Facebook is giving everything away to the NSA and selling everything else to whomever wants it? Even though social networks are now widely considered a vanity thing unacceptable even for teenyboppers?

      -- Ethanol-fueled

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I know this site is mostly read by guys, so I guess we should expect sexist comments abou humourless feminists.

    • I know this site is mostly read by guys, so I guess we should expect

      And that's not sexist how?

    • Oh the irony.

  • subjectivity (Score:2, Insightful)

    What is so wrong about letting people make their own choices? Why are people trying to demonize decisions as "arbitrary" and "random"?

    I trust human discretion a thousand times over policy. Policy is just a coat of varnish people put over to make things look better. Are we to be slaves to appearances all the time?

    I'm going back to reading my Kierkegaard now ...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    People who are against "pro-rape" pages are now considered "humourless feminists"? That strikes me as a poor choice of words. I would like to think all sane people would be put off by "pro-rape" propaganda.

    • People who are against "pro-rape" pages are now considered "humourless feminists"? That strikes me as a poor choice of words. I would like to think all sane people would be put off by "pro-rape" propaganda.

      Pro-rape is acceptable and often funny when men are the victims. The "humourless feminist" is obviously a reference to the fact that some of these feminists will often rejoice and laugh at the idea of prison rape and male mutilation but become humourless when it's the other way around. The 'pro-rape' jokes are to highlight their hypocrisy on that matter. (eg: It is a troll in the traditional sense, and IMHO the only valid sense of the word)

      • by Seumas ( 6865 )

        I don't even buy that these "pages" are real. There have been plenty of recent examples where someone staged hateful and sickening violent threatening (in at least one case, misogynist) comments on someone's page on facebook. Turns out, it was the "victim" herself leaving these messages from other accounts, to generate attention, sympathy, and publicity.

        So . . . excuse me if I don't immediately buy into the bullshit, here.

        Also, people shouldn't rely on some uber corp as their source of publishing and readin

    • From what I've heard Facebook also allows some feminist groups to post comments calling for the castration of men on their site, so I'd say they were just being equal opportunity by allowing comments from the other side. My opinion is if you don't like it don't read it, but it seems censorship and making sure no one can read it is a much better choice.
    • "Pro-rape" comments apparently include this [] and this [][PDF warning].

      If you think either of those endorses rape, you might be a redneck^Wfeminist.

      Modbomb incoming. Come at me, bro.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Honestly, when it comes to face book, is there really a need to take things down? Sure, if someone posts illegal bits (child porn), the legally have to get rid of it, but just wacky opinions and offensive stuff? Here in the US (where FaceBook is incorporated), we let people be Nazi and we don't make the Westboro Baptist Church shut up. The Ku Klux Klan gets legal protection for their speech here. This freedom to state your opinions (and make offensive jokes) is the main freedom we have left in this country.

    • by ojno ( 2490970 )
      The point wasn't that they were censoring stuff; the point was that they were censoring some things but not others, in an asinine way. For example, they were censoring photos of breastfeeding children if one pixel of nipple was shown, but not photos of beaten-up women with captions like "Haha she deserved it."
  • Yes, random chance is a factor in which grassroots campaigns take hold. Luck is a factor in everything. Luck is a factor in Mr. Haselton's proposed solution as well (basically extending the "internet jury duty" idea he's pushed in many other posts) - if this campaign had been reviewed by 20 random internet-users who just so happen to be militant anti-feminists, then it would've been killed on the spot.

    The luck factor of a success can be minimized by actually being better than the alternatives. In the Sal

    • There will always be *some* luck, but the point is that if only a minority of people in your user base are militant anti-feminists, you'd have to be extremely unlucky for them to make up a majority of your 20 randomly selected users. If aberrations in the random user subset still seemed to happen to frequently, you could (a) increase the subset size to something more than 20, or (b) have an "appeal" option where if you happened to get really unlucky in the first round, you could appeal to another group of 2
      • Yes, even in the Salganik studies or in the real world, you have to be "good enough" in order to get a "big break", but my concern is that with the chaotic luck-dominated process that we have now, the number of qualified people (or songs, or ideas) is vastly greater than the number that do get the "big break", and their potential is being wasted. (In the NFL, by contrast, even the losing teams get paid well and provide entertainment value to fans, unlike musicians who are not lucky enough to get discovered.)

        I don't see how your solution changes that, though. Assuming it's implemented properly, wouldn't the ideas that already get their big break still make it through the screening alongside others that wouldn't have, and then be subject to the whims of the people? It seems like all you'd be doing is having a layer of bureaucracy to do what the Salganik effect already does. So as an example, in the current, free-range internet, there'd be a million potential memes, of which 20,000 qualify as "good enough" for

        • Sorry I didn't reply to this sooner, because I think this is actually quite an insightful point and deserves a reply, as to whether the "winners" from random-sample-voting would simply be whittled down to a smaller set of "winners" by another pseudo-random process.

          I think my system works in cases where either of two conditions are true: (1) where we have room for more "winners" (i.e. there is a user base that is willing to consume more "good enough" content than is currently pushed to them), or (2) where
  • some anti-women and pro-rape pages on Facebook... humorless feminists.

    We have different senses of humor.

  • by Brucelet ( 1857158 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @02:12PM (#44009397)
    Remind me again why Bennett Haselton gets to use the Slashdot front page as his personal blog?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I think slashdot's so called editors feel like slashdot needs to field some original content to justify their own jobs, but they neither know how to write nor know anyone who knows how to write.

      So it happens that every so often some determined hanger-on, such as Bennett Haselton, starts submitting crap like this to slashdot and it the editors dutifully publish it because it fills that gap in their lives.

    • It was most likely the outcome of a mostly arbitrary and random process that required a lot of luck.

  • I'm sure Facebook looked at the legal liabilities of allowing such content on their service in their decision. It wasn't simple campaigning. If it weren't for the problems of people posting openly about illegal activity, this would have fallen on deaf ears. There's a reason that campaigning hasn't convinced Facebook to stop treating breastfeeding photos as pornography, despite the constant campaigning by groups of mothers. There's no potential for getting sued for deleting their content (breastfeeding i

    • by Seumas ( 6865 )

      Huh? What are the legal liabilities of "#throwshoesathookers" or whatever?

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        Huh? What are the legal liabilities of "#throwshoesathookers" or whatever?

        Well, if they're bad shoes, the hookers could twist their ankles or even fall and hurt themselves.

  • Normally I'm one the few ./ers that actually RTFS. But seriously, this summary is longer than most articles that pop up on here...

    I need a tl;dr version of the summary.
  • Bennett isn't crapflooding us, he's crapflooding the NSA. I guess he's hoping that if he writes enough pointless shit like this, the NSA's AI bots will commit suicide.

    In fact, he may not be a person at all but some sort of low quality chinese AI script designed to write longwinded and boring essays.

    • osteoporosis helpful paprika diem brandon alert inveigh martyr superfluity couple amphibious dutchman sienna careworn gladiator primacy tournament productivity cohesion infusible cheery wicket utopia nasa suckling annum juju baden pusey besotted harvard tractor formal gracious chevalier bedrock kindred sacred vagrant doria timid bonnet haag beet cutout bridgeport calligraph lockstep
  • another group of people being offended by trolls on the internet.
  • Why would anyone prevent bigots from self-identifying with facebook groups?
  • I don't understand why anybody thinks that as Facebook products/users, they'd have any ability at all to influence Facebook. Seems pretty silly for me to use a service for free and think that you'd be able to have any say as to the quality of the service. I think that some people forget that they're not the customers, but the *products* that Facebook sells to customers. This guy seems to think that Facebook is some sort of public utility that regular people have some sort of rights to influence.
  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @02:36PM (#44009669)

    Welcome to 2010 when cycling groups noticed a surge in anti-cyclist pages, advocating intentionally harassing or injuring cyclists. In some cases, posters proudly brag about harassing and striking cyclists.

    Facebook has formally refused to remove the groups despite clearly violating their policies. []

    • by Seumas ( 6865 )

      Actually, it's probably a fantastic idea that Facebook doesn't allow anything to be posted that might be naughty in any way whatsoever (because, you know, words are obviously worse than actual actions or something). I mean, think about it. Law enforcement groups of all kinds trawl Facebook both to uncover crimes and to find proof of guilt for crimes they've already picked someone up for. If someone is a jackhole and smacked a bicyclist (no matter how much they often fucking deserve it) and then the cops dig

    • I've got some rope and two trees at the bottom of a hill waiting for critical mass to try their BS here.

  • Random? Luck? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mooingyak ( 720677 ) on Friday June 14, 2013 @02:41PM (#44009733)

    In reality, the success of the campaign was most likely the outcome of a mostly arbitrary and random process that required a lot of luck

    1. Someone shows Nissan and other major advertisers how advertisements for their products were showing up on pages advocating/glorifying rape.
    2. Nissan (and other) execs pretty much instantly say "Holy Shit I don't want us associated with that" and pull ads from FB, COSTING FACEBOOK HUGE GOBS OF MONEY.
    3. Facebook starts addressing the problem.

    #fbrape hit them in the wallet. There's nothing random or lucky about it.

    • In reality, the success of the campaign was most likely the outcome of a mostly arbitrary and random process that required a lot of luck

      Forgot to mention, that sentence needs to be taken out and shot.

  • Its facebook, hence youre the product. The product does not complain or pout or campaign. The product is sold to the market, and as long as a market exists for gender based hate speech the pages will exist as well.

    now, with Nissan, you are a consumer. if you as a consumer dont appreciate their marketing on these pages then by all means direct your complaints to them. in turn Nissan will demand a partial refund for poor demographic targeting and insist facebook fine-tune its system to prevent further
  • TO "$1-an-hour grunt worker[s]" who are ineffective, you claim.
    Is to get minimal or zero paid workers. Which is what they apparently already have. So you just want more of them?

    So basically, that entire essay is just saying that they should expand their workforce and have multiple people look at each report

  • I have lost track of the number of times Facebook have removed a post arbitrarily. To them, a picture showing a woman breastfeeding, or a lady displaying her mastectomy scars is labelled as "pornographic", resulting in images removed, and the user banned for varying times, while Facebook turns a blind eye to groups advocating rape and violence. This week, Facebook did nothing when the contact phone number of a mental hospital in the US were published and a post urged people to call up to harrass the staff a
    • A little postscript; Crowe has also taken to putting various put-downs and unnecessarily cruel comments etc. on Jon's YouTube channel, for absolutely no reason except to confirm the impression that Crowe is an internet stalker.
  • What exactly does "anti woman" mean?

    I'm being serious here. Exactly how does someone create a page/group that attacks half the population in a way that anyone would take seriously?

    Exactly how do you successfully cast half the world as the "other?"

Thus spake the master programmer: "When a program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"