A man who should start saying mea culpa on his cross-country tour.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

On Sunday afternoon we learned about Facebook’s internal content moderation rules from a massive leak by The Guardian. It confirmed what a lot of people had long suspected: Facebook is making it up as they go along and we’re the collateral damage.

The leaked moderator documents cover how to deal with depictions of things like self-harm and animal cruelty in exceedingly detailed ways. A first read through suggests that the company attempted to create a rule for every conceivable situation, and if they missed one, well they’d write that guideline when it came up. It suggests they think that this is just a question of perfecting the rules, when they’ve been off-base from the outset.

Facebook, like much of Silicon Valley, distrusts people and their wisdom. They worship efficiency and code and they do their best to program around the messy human interactions of life. Which, as we’ve seen time and again, is not an ideal way to manage and run a community populated by nearly two billion humans

The devil is in the details of course, but that’s why most communities have informal and formal rules and ethics about how you’re supposed to act and behave. It’s messy, but it largely works. You decide on what principles and values are important to you, and then those guide specific day-to-day interactions among people.  

All we’ve had to go on about Facebook’s guiding principles have been generic platitudes from Zuckerberg until a few months ago, when he gave us a few thousand words of generic platitudes. The company has always clung mightily to vagueness – and secrecy. Facebook says it wants to protect free speech and to avoid censorship. But censorship is something to be avoided because it’s a mis-calibration: Something valuable was prohibited or erased. The banned book was worth reading. The activist’s speech needed to be heard. The silencing was a problem because of the values it acted against. Facebook has never understood that. They’ve operated at the level of the particular, and they have studiously avoided the theoretical that makes that particular worth fighting for.  

Sure, if Facebook had decided to take an actual stand, they’d have had detractors. But if they’d been transparent about why, their users would have gotten over it. If you have principles, and you stick to them, people will adjust.  

Instead, Facebook seems to change their policies based on the level of outrage that is generated. It contributes to a perception of them as craven and exploitative. This is why Facebook lurches from stupid controversy to stupid controversy, learning the hard way every. single. time

A video of a man murdering his daughter in Thailand needed 24 hours before it came down, despite being a clear policy violation. Breastfeeding photos are not allowed until they are. Child nudity is removed ASAP, even when it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo and there’s value in keeping it up. Humans moderators, faulty though they can be, are good at these types of decisions. They can weigh competing moral and philosophical claims and aim at fairness and justice. 

Zuckerberg, like many in Silicon Valley, seems to believe that he has enough control and foresight that nothing will come up that his algorithm didn’t predict, and he can handle it when it does. That we’re just one more algorithm tweak away from internet utopia. But until they learn that they’re wrong, the rest of us are just the lab rats in their social experiment in hubris. 

Facebook laid a minefield and now they’re trying to map a path through it. But maybe they should have thought about that before they strewed them everywhere 

The company needs to acknowledge that its approach was just fundamentally off. Not “we’ll do better” or “we’ll try harder” or “we’ll update our guidelines.” Wrong from the get-go. 

If the internet is broken, Facebook helped break it. Now they owe the rest of us for the damage. 

Don’t bet on it.

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