Bitche Gets Turfed As Facebook’s Profanity Filter Goes Into Overdrive

Bitche Gets Turfed As Facebook’s Profanity Filter Goes Into Overdrive
Image: Getty

It appears Facebook is cracking down on profanities in Facebook page names lately — but the wrong targets have been caught in the crosshairs. When moderators behind the Facebook page for Bitche, France logged into their official page in the middle of March, they found the entire page wiped for violating the Facebook rules.

But as it turned out, they hadn’t done anything wrong. Instead, Facebook had removed the page for assumed profanity, and pre-emptively wiped it to avoid offending anyone. While it was later restored, the act has highlighted a massive issue in Facebook’s moderation system.

Despite what Facebook thinks, Bitche is a real place in France, and it’s been around since the 17th Century. So it’s safe to say it predates any Facebook policy on profanity.

Valérie Degouy, communications manager in Bitche, initially attempted to contact Facebook to rectify the issue according to an interview with Radio Mélodie but the appeal was reportedly unsuccessful. “I tried to reach out to Facebook in every possible way, through different forms, but there’s nothing [I could] do,” Degouy told the station. Facebook’s decision appeared final.

This is what led Degouy to relent and set up a new page, named after the township’s postcode. But it wasn’t until Degouy’s pleas for change went viral online that Facebook suddenly realised the issue and reinstated the original page. This was identified as an “error” and while further information wasn’t made available, the mistake here is fairly easy to assume.

Facebook’s moderation filter is partially automated, meaning there’s no leap in logic between identifying an apparent profanity and relating it to a township or location. It means there’s little human oversight on what actually gets blocked — and that getting pages back after they’re gone is a major challenge.

As the township of Bitche discovered, it took internet virality to change Facebook’s mind about the decision despite the clear evidence Bitche is a real place.

It’s led to fears from smaller townships around the world that they’ll need to change their names to avoid a similar fate. As first reported by Politico, Facebook’s stance led the neighbouring Rohrbach-lès-Bitche to rename its page to Ville de Rohrbach this week.

Until Facebook has clearer lines of contact between page creators and site moderators, it’s likely these problems will continue. Partial automation may save the company money in the long-run but without that human oversight, towns like Bitche are at risk of losing their community hubs due to sloppy filters.

In an era where automation is creeping further into places that fundamentally require more human logic, what are places like Fucking, Austria meant to do? Or the similarly named town Šukačka in Czechia? Is Butts County, Georgia next? Or Dildo Island in Canada? What about Pee Pee Township in Ohio? Sadly, only time will tell.

The next steps for Facebook are currently unclear.