Algorithms, Censorship, and You

Have you been the victim of a static algorithm? You might be entitled to compensation. Well, no, probably not.

I’m a member of a Facebook group where people express candid opinions. Recently one of the active members had a post removed by FB because, it said, its algorithm identified inappropriate language (we think it was because of a four letter word associated with fornication and other fun activities). Now, this group has adult members who in the real world use some pretty salty language, and we would be shocked, shocked, I tell you (I said, clutching my pearls) if everyone suddenly went Church Lady on us. The algorithm apparently has set parameters for what is fine to post and what is not without taking into consideration the person using it, the group, or the situation. This is not AI as far as I can tell, because Artificial Intelligence learns and might in time figure out that this group likes its colorful language.

So, here it is–the problem of censorship in its infant phase, telling you what is and isn’t acceptable in a private group. Mind you, I totally agree with the unacceptability of hate speech, bullying, denigration, and all the other stuff that is not acceptable in just about every circumstance. But, I sort of wonder how these authors would promote their books on Facebook or other sites that make determinations about the use of certain words. And to top all that off, that same word shows up elsewhere on FB. Why one place and not the other?

As I have said many times, I don’t believe in censorship (except every copy of Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster should be burned), but if we must censor, shouldn’t it be from a set of agreed upon standards? Shouldn’t it be consistent, fair, take into consideration context? But that is harder than it might seem. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to describe his test for obscenity. He responded: “I know it when I see it.” He probably didn’t. We have been struggling with defining limits on speech and other forms of expression for a very long time.

We as a society have agreed to remove some words from use because of their charged past. Recently I was watching the television series about Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U. S. Marshall west of the Mississippi, based on a biographical book series by Sidney Thompson. When a White woman, the former owner of Bass and his wife, offers to take them back into servitude and to be kind enough to keep their children from being “field n*****s”, it was profoundly shocking to hear the “N word” spoken. When Jennie slaps her and throws her out of her home, I was cheering along with everybody else, I’m pretty sure. Words do have power, and words can hurt. But knowing when to use those words can be important. I’m sure the actress who had to utter that word struggled to keep from flinching, but the power of that ugliness was necessary because it conveyed the ugliness of the time.

I think most Americans believe we are free and open minded. Yet a tiny handful of people have been challenging and succeeding in getting a huge number of books banned. Minority opinions have overridden the majority and demanded removal of access to literature often about other minorities, underrepresented people who struggle to have their voices heard.  It seems like a kind of madness for one tiny group to silence another tiny group when most of us want to hear what they have to say so we can judge for ourselves from a position of knowledge and exposure to different ideas and points of view.

High schools and middle schools have become a hot bed of censorship.  We appear to be so terrified of offending and controversy that we silence needed dialogs. The students of Jackson-Reed High School were denied the opportunity to host a  Palestinian cultural event, and the same school pushed back on teachers covering Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” and “Night” by Elie Wiese which both deal with the Holocaust.  The thing is, if Vladimir Putin is determined that the Ukrainian country and culture have no right to exist,  and Benjamin Netanyahu thinks 25,000 dead Palestinians are not enough, perhaps children should be taught and adults reminded what genocide looks like.

So back to our algorithm. Who decided f*** is not okay for Facebook posts in a members only group? Why is it okay in some places and not others? Where is the contingency, the consideration for who and why it is used? Can we challenge it? (Apparently, these decisions can be challenged.) Or should we just let someone else decide what we can and can not say? To that I say, f*** no.*

*This is not a members only blog and anyone can find and read it, so I will in this instance self edit. However, if you would care to hear my vast array of colorful nouns, adjectives, epithets, and verbs, feel free to contact me, and the horse I rode in on.

Image: Me and the horse I rode in on. By Jonathan Hutchins.