Was what I said on Facebook really 'hate speech'?

22 November 2020

6:00 PM

22 November 2020

6:00 PM

Facebook has been accused of failing to combat extremism and hate-speech among its users. But as I found out this week, sometimes it does far too much to take down controversial opinions.

Coffee House recently published an article by me with the headline ‘Michael Parkinson is right: men are funnier than women’. In the piece, I argued that men are more adapted to and adept at humour because they are less grounded in reality and more at home with incongruence. I said that because humour is often based on cruelty and schadenfreude it is also suited to the typically more aggressive male mindset.

In short, I said that men and women were different. I did not say than men were better than woman. If anything, I actually implied the opposite.

But try telling that to Facebook, which has removed my article for ‘violating our standards on hate speech’. What does and doesn’t fall foul of the Facebook moderators – and why – can be hard to work out. It appears, however, that the headline of the piece was enough to condemn it. Facebook’s hate speech policy forbids:

‘Expressions about being better/worse than another protected characteristic, including, but not limited to: “I believe that males are superior to females”.’

It hardly goes without saying that people on social media don’t always wait until they’ve read an article before wading in. So we should not be surprised that the robots or people at Facebook might have done likewise with my article.

But here’s the issue: if the article was automatically binned by detection software, it exposes the perils of relying on artificial intelligence to identify hate speech. But if, on the other hand, a real person saw the article and decided to take it down, it shows us that Facebook’s censors are either shutting down free speech; that they failed to understand what the article actually said; or that they are lazy and didn’t bother to read it. So which is it?

I won’t be the last person to have his or her unfashionable viewpoints removed from a social media giant. In fact, on Friday, an article by Oxford University’s professor of evidence based medicine, Carl Heneghan, was removed by Facebook for reporting (correctly) that a Danish study demonstrated that face masks did not have a significant effect in preventing Covid infections.

This is a reminder of the perils of censorship, which often hit the wrong target. It goes without saying that, while there is a case for removing posts from social media that are deemed to pose a potential real-life threat, such as racist or extremist material, saying impolite things should never fall under this category. You might not like what Michael Parkinson suggested – that men are often funnier than women – but shouldn’t we be allowed to at least talk about?

More worryingly, it’s not only on Facebook that this debate about ‘hate speech’ is playing out. The Scottish government currently plans to extend where alleged hate-speech can be monitored and prosecuted; similar legislation is being mooted south of the border.

The SNP’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) bill will introduce the offence of ‘stirring-up’ hatred towards people of certain characteristics, including disability, sexual orientation and age. And it could apply to offences ‘committed in private’. Meanwhile, a recent Law Commission consultation on hate crime suggests removing the ‘private dwelling’ defence (i.e. if something was said in someone’s home) from criminal legislation in England and Wales.

This sets a dangerous precedent. The division between the public and private sphere is a cornerstone of civilisation. The erasure of the boundary between the two is the hallmark of a totalitarian state. Why shouldn’t people be free to speak their minds in their own home?

Another foundation of a healthy, liberal, open society is free speech, which has taken a pounding in recent years in the age of social media and ‘cancelling’. And as Facebook’s behaviour in this case reminds us, directives and rules can be flexibly interpreted by censors.

Such subjectivity is already enshrined in English law, with race or religious hate crime defined as:

‘Any crime which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on…a person’s religion or perceived religion.’

In other words, the perception of hostility could be enough to condemn someone.

I don’t care much that my article has been wiped from Facebook. But what is worrying is when the definition of ‘hate speech’ becomes so broad as to include references to whether men are funnier than women. Are we really far away from a situation where someone is prosecuted for saying something controversial at the dinner table, because a guest or neighbour in earshot perceived it to be hate speech?

At times like this we should remember John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’: that everyone should be free to live as they please as long as no one else is harmed in the process. You may or may not agree that men are often funnier than women. But no one was harmed by reading my thoughts on the subject. The likes of Facebook, who filter and want to monitor what we say, should always have this principle in mind.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)

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