The Vindicator, a news outlet in Liberty, Texas, wanted to help its followers read the entire US Declaration of Independence before the Fourth of July, so it posted excerpts on its Facebook page. But something in one of the most significant documents in modern history triggered Facebook’s filters.
The outlet broke the Declaration up into 12 chunks and posted each one from June 24 to July 4, but one of those posts was removed from Facebook, according to an article written by The Vindicator managing editor Casey Stinnett.
“Somewhere in paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote something that Facebook finds offensive,” Stinnett wrote.
Facebook sent The Vindicator a notice that the post “goes against our standards on hate speech”, and asked the outlet to remove whatever violated Facebook’s policies. Here is the excerpt that was posted.
“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
“He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
“He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Stinnett suggested that the phrase that set off Facebook’s automated filter was “Indian Savages”, which most certainly is an offensive phrase. But Stinnett clarified that “to be honest, there is a good deal in that passage that could be thought hateful”.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the removal to Gizmodo: “The post was removed by mistake and restored as soon as we looked into it. We process millions of reports each week, and sometimes we get things wrong.”
Facebook clarified that “Indian Savages” used in another context could violate the company’s community standards regarding hate speech, but quoting from the Declaration of Independence does not violate those standards.
The Vindicator has since updated its article, thanking Facebook for restoring the post.
“We want to apologise,” Facebook reportedly said, “and let you know that we’ve restored your content and removed any blocks on your account related to this incorrect action.”
The original article acknowledged that, though the incident was frustrating, Facebook is not a government entity and therefore is allowed to restrict content.
But Stinnett also expressed some larger concerns about the publication’s relationship with Facebook: “The problem The Vindicator faces is that it has become dependent, perhaps too dependent, on Facebook to communicate with local residents and to promote the newspaper.”