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ACLU accuses Facebook of racial bias in hate speech takedowns

In an open letter, almost 80 advocacy groups say the social network needs to be more transparent about its censorship decisions.

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Advocacy groups are accusing Facebook of "racially biased censorship."

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

With almost 1.8 billion users, Facebook is constantly making decisions about what it allows on its social network and what gets nixed as hate speech.

On Wednesday, almost 80 advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Facebook that takes issue with how the company makes those decisions. The letter (PDF) accuses Facebook of a lack of transparency and "racially biased censorship."

The groups allege that Facebook disproportionately censors posts from people of color, especially posts with political speech and critiques of law enforcement.

"Even as activists have been censored for political speech and for posting images critical of government actors -- including police officers -- Facebook's third-party complaint process has failed to prevent the spread of violent threats and harassment by white supremacist hate groups on your platform," the letter reads.

The "third-party complaint process" refers to Facebook's practice of hiring outside groups to sort through posts flagged as potential hate speech. In November, an NPR report said the contractors sometimes have 10 seconds to decide the fate of a piece of content.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company received the letter and is reviewing it.

The rebuke from the advocacy groups is illustrative of Facebook's challenge as it deals with its influence as the largest social network in the world. The company has recently grappled with censorship issues as it's distributed fake news stories, expanded its focus on live video and struggled with what to do with violence on live broadcasts.

In July, a Minnesota woman named Diamond Reynolds used the service to live-stream video of her fiance, Philando Castile, after he was shot by police. The next day, Facebook Live captured the scene as five Dallas police officers were gunned down during a peaceful demonstration. In another example, Facebook in September initially took down a post that featured the iconic Vietnam War photo "Napalm Girl" because it features a naked child. But the post was later restored after a public backlash.

Wednesday's letter was a response to a December letter by Joel Kaplan, Facebook's director of global policy. Kaplan's letter was itself a response to a missive sent by the coalition in October that brought up the same issues. On Wednesday, the coalition said Kaplan's response was too general and didn't directly address the group's concerns.

One of the things the coalition wants Facebook to do is provide a report that compiles data on the company's censorship decisions. (That's separate from the report Facebook and other companies regularly issue highlighting information requests from government and law enforcement.) Such a report would include stats like the percentage of content that was removed from Facebook because it violated hate speech policies.

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