Facebook Oversight Board: „Fucking Chinese” Referring to Chinese Government Not Forbidden by Facebook Rules

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From a decision just released today:

In April 2021, a Facebook user who appeared to be in Myanmar posted in Burmese on their timeline. The post discussed ways to limit financing to the Myanmar military following the coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021. It proposed that tax revenue be given to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hlutaw (CRPH), a group of legislators opposed to the coup. The post received about 500,000 views, about 6,000 reactions and was shared about 6,000 times. No Facebook users reported the post.

Facebook translated the supposedly violating part of the user’s post as „Hong Kong people, because the fucking Chinese tortured them, changed their banking to UK, and now (the Chinese) they cannot touch them.” Facebook removed the post as „Tier 2” Hate Speech under its Hate Speech Community Standard the day after it was posted. This prohibits content targeting a person or group of people based on their race, ethnicity or national origin with „profane terms or phrases with the intent to insult.” …

Facebook also noted in its decision rationale that following the February 2021 coup „there were reports of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment” in Myanmar and that „several Chinese people were injured, trapped, or killed in an alleged arson attack on a Chinese-financed garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar.” In response to a question from the Board, Facebook stated that it did not have any contact with the Myanmar military regime about this post.

Facebook stated that given the nature of the word „ta-yote” and the fact that the user did not „clearly indicate that the term refers to the country/government of China,” Facebook determined that „the user is, at a minimum, referring to Chinese people.” As such, Facebook stated that the removal of the post was consistent with its Hate Speech Community Standard.

Facebook also stated that its removal was consistent with its values of „Dignity” and „Safety,” when balanced against the value of „Voice.” According to Facebook, profane cursing directed at Chinese people „may result in harm to those people” and is „demeaning, dehumanizing, and belittling of their individual dignity.” …

The Board considered various factors in deciding this post did not target Chinese people based on their ethnicity, race, or national origin. First, the broader post suggests ways to limit financial engagement with the military regime and provide financial support for the CRPH. Second, the supposedly violating part of the post refers to China’s financial policies in Hong Kong as „torture” or „persecution,” and not the actions of individuals or Chinese people in Myanmar. Third, while the absence of reporting of a widely shared post does not always indicate it is not violating, more than 500,000 people viewed, and more than 6,000 people shared the post and no users reported it. Fourth, both translators consulted by the Board indicated that, while the same term is used to refer to both a state and its people, here it referred to the state. When questioned on any possible ambiguity in this reference, the translators did not indicate any doubt. Fifth, both translators stated that the post contains terms commonly used by the Myanmar government and the Chinese embassy to address each other [presumably not the „fucking” part -EV]. Lastly, public comments generally noted the overall tenor of the post as largely a political discussion.

Therefore, given that the profanity did not target people based on race, ethnicity, or national origin, but targeted a state, the Board concludes it does not violate Facebook’s Hate Speech Community Standard. It is crucial to ensure that prohibitions on targeting people based on protected characteristics not be construed in a manner that shields governments or institutions from criticism. The Board recognizes that anti-Chinese hate speech is a serious concern, but this post references the Chinese state….

During the Board’s deliberation regarding this case, Facebook updated its Hate Speech Community Standard to provide more information on how it prohibits „concepts” related to protected characteristics in certain circumstances. This new rule states Facebook „require[s] additional information and/or context” for enforcement and that users should not post „Content attacking concepts, institutions, ideas, practices, or beliefs associated with protected characteristics, which are likely to contribute to imminent physical harm, intimidation or discrimination against the people associated with that protected characteristic.”

Sounds like a good step to me, whatever one thinks of Facebook’s speech restrictions more broadly. For a similar American controversy, at the University of San Diego law school, see here.

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