Last week Facebook announced new efforts to respond more quickly to hate speech that violates their terms of service. In the past couple of weeks Facebook has worked with members of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and other LGBT organizations to remove harmful and offensive posts that have plagued many of Facebook’s public pages. This effort comes on the heels of recent tragedies involving different forms of cyber bullying resulting in suicides such as in the case of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi who ended his life after his roommate used the Internet to shame and harass Clementi over his sexual preference.
GLAAD initially got involved in cleaning up Facebook after receiving complaints from various members of the gay community about a Facebook page that was established in memory of victims of anti-gay bullying that became covered with derogatory hate speech and images. The organization responded by reaching out to Facebook and starting a dialogue on effective measures to control offensive and hateful posts. Facebook responded quickly, partnering up with GLAAD to clean the site of anti-gay hate speech. Supporters of Facebooks initial steps have ranged from Jarret Barrios, President of GLAAD, down to Perez Hilton, the controversial celebrity blogger.
While the case of this memorial page to bullying victims may have been pretty clear-cut hate speech, some cases could be and probably have been proven to be more difficult to classify. Facebook has consistently said that they prohibit any kind of hateful content and that they have mechanisms in place to remove harmful posts as quickly as they can. However, they also emphasize that their users are allowed to express unpopular opinions and that there must be a careful balance between free speech and removing hateful content. It seems likely that these two would occasionally, if not frequently, come into conflict.
While these are steps in the right direction in an attempt to curb cyber bulling and harassment, I can’t help but wonder how long it would have taken for Facebook’s own “mechanisms” to target this page had a large and widely respected group such as GLAAD not stepped in? With Facebook users generating millions of new pieces of content every hour, it seems highly unlikely that Facebook can effectively monitor its content without massive help from Facebook users themselves. Thus, is there real hope for strict control over cyber bullying and Internet hate speech? Possibly. As long as Internet users themselves take an active role in reporting offensive actions. However, the conflict between defining something as free speech or hate speech will always leave some content unresolved.