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Facebook's hate speech detection systems to focus on 'worst of the worst'

The effort includes deprioritizing some hateful comments against white people, Americans and men.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Facebook is reportedly working on a major overhaul of its algorithms that police hate speech on its platforms. The changes, which are still in the early stages, include reengineering its automated moderation systems to better detect and remove hateful language that's considered the "worst of the worst," according to The Washington Post, which cited internal Facebook documents. 

The massive social network has long banned hate speech, but its updated approach will shift the company away from treating all hate speech the same, the Post reported Thursday. As part of the overhaul, Facebook systems will prioritize detecting and removing hateful comments directed at Black people, Muslims, people of more than one race, the LGBTQ community and Jews, the documents reportedly show. The system changes also reportedly include deprioritizing some hateful comments against white people, Americans and men.

Facebook confirmed that it's made updates to its proactive detection systems to catch hate speech that experts say is the most serious. The updates are a result of insights from internal and external research and work with specialists, the company said.

"We know that hate speech targeted towards underrepresented groups can be the most harmful, which is why we have focused our technology on finding the hate speech that users and experts tell us is the most serious," Facebook spokesperson Sally Aldous said in an emailed statement. "Over the past year, we've also updated our policies to catch more implicit hate speech, such as content depicting Blackface, stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world, and banned holocaust denial." 

Facebook said the project is focused on its proactive tools. Hate speech reported by users and others -- including against white people, Americans and men -- will still be removed. 

Facebook uses a mix of human reviewers and technology to remove harmful content. In November, the social network said its tools proactively detected 94.7% of the hate speech removed by the company between July and September. In the third quarter, Facebook took action against 22.1 million pieces of content for hate speech, the company said.

Despite its efforts, Facebook has been under fire from civil rights activists and politicians who say it isn't enforcing its rules against speech that directly attacks a person based on race, gender or other protected characteristics. This year major brands paused spending on Facebook ads to pressure the company to do more to tackle hate speech, which they say is still slipping through.

In November the social network said there are 10 to 11 views of hate speech out of every 10,000 views of Facebook content. 

The first phase of the hate speech overhaul, apparently known as the WoW Project (for "worst of the worst"), was announced to a small group of Facebook employees in October, according to the Post. 

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