Oversight Board Overturns Facebook Decision in Colombia Protests Case

The Oversight Board has overturned Facebook’s decision to remove a post showing a video of protesters in Colombia criticizing the country’s president, Ivan Duque. In the video, the protesters use a word designated as a slur under Facebook’s Hate Speech Community Standard. Assessing the public interest value of this content, the Board found that Facebook should have applied the newsworthiness allowance in this case.

About the Case

In May 2021, the Facebook page of a regional news outlet in Colombia shared a post by another Facebook page without adding any additional caption. This shared post is the content at issue in this case. The original root post contains a short video showing a protest in Colombia with people marching behind a banner that says “SOS COLOMBIA.”

The protesters are singing in Spanish and address the Colombian president, mentioning the tax reform recently proposed by the Colombian government. As part of their chant, the protesters call the president "hijo de puta" once and say "deja de hacerte el marica en la tv" once. Facebook translated these phrases as "son of a bitch" and "stop being the fag on tv.” The video is accompanied by text in Spanish expressing admiration for the protesters. The shared post was viewed around 19,000 times, with fewer than five users reporting it to Facebook.

Key Findings

Facebook removed this content as it contained the word “marica” (from here on redacted as “m**ica”). This violated Facebook’s Hate Speech Community Standard which does not allow content that “describes or negatively targets people with slurs” based on protected characteristics such as sexual orientation. Facebook noted that while, in theory, the newsworthiness allowance could apply to such content, the allowance can only be applied if the content moderators who initially review the content decide to escalate it for additional review by Facebook’s content policy team. This did not happen in this case. The Board also notes that Facebook does not make its criteria for escalation publicly available.

The word “m**rica” has been designated as a slur by Facebook on the basis that it is inherently offensive and used as an insulting and discriminatory label primarily against gay men. While the Board agrees that none of the exceptions currently listed in Facebook’s Hate Speech Community Standard permit the slur’s use, which can contribute to an environment of intimidation and exclusion for LGBT people, it finds that the company should have applied the newsworthiness allowance in this case.

The newsworthiness allowance requires Facebook to assess the public interest of allowing certain expression against the risk of harm from allowing violating content. As part of this, Facebook considers the nature of the speech as well as country-specific context, such as the political structure of the country and whether it has a free press.

Assessing the public interest value of this content, the Board notes that it was posted during widespread protests against the Colombian government at a significant moment in the country’s political history. While participants appear to use the slur term deliberately, it is used once among numerous other utterances and the chant primarily focuses on criticism towards the country’s president.

The Board also notes that, in an environment where outlets for political expression are limited, social media has provided a platform for all people, including journalists, to share information about the protests. Applying the newsworthiness allowance in this case means that only exceptional and limited harmful content would be permitted.

The Oversight Board’s Decision

The Oversight Board overturns Facebook’s decision to remove the content, requiring the post to be restored.

In a policy advisory statement, the Board recommends that Facebook:

  • Publish illustrative examples from the list of slurs designated as violating under its Hate Speech Community Standard, including borderline cases with words which may be harmful in some contexts but not others.
  • Link the short explanation of the newsworthiness allowance provided in the introduction to the Community Standards to the more detailed explanation in the Facebook’s Transparency Center of how this policy applies. The company should supplement this explanation with illustrative examples from a range of contexts, including reporting on large scale protests.
  • Develop and publicize clear criteria for content reviewers for escalating for additional review public interest content that potentially violates the Community Standards but may be eligible for the newsworthiness allowance. These criteria should cover content depicting large protests on political issues.
  • Notify all users who reported content which was assessed as violating but left on the platform for public interest reasons that the newsworthiness allowance was applied to the post.

For Further Information:

To read the full case decision, click here.

To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click the attachment below.

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