Facebook Says Au Revoir to Student Group

Is making fun of French people hate speech? One student group, which did just that, finds Facebook says "oui."

April 24, 2018
 
Screenshot from UChicago Secrets via The Chicago Maroon

A University of Chicago student group that published a Facebook post describing all French people as “assholes” has been banned from the social networking site.

The UChicago Secrets page served as a way for students to anonymously ask questions, make observations and air grievances about life on campus.

Like many anonymous platforms before it, the Secrets page was controversial, and some students had called for it to be closed.

But the death knell for the Secrets page came last week when student moderators approved a post describing French culture and history as “absolutely repulsive” and French people as “the biggest assholes on earth.”

A spokeswoman for the University of Chicago said that while the institution was aware of this online community and others like it, it was not actively monitored for potential regulations of university policy.

The page was taken down by Facebook and remains off-line, apparently because of the flagged post.

Speaking to the University of Chicago’s independent student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, the page’s moderators said they were appealing the decision.

The students told the Maroon they believed the anti-French post was satirical -- a copy-and-paste meme. They said they had “no reason to believe it constituted hate speech.”

Under Facebook’s community standards guidelines, content attacking people based on their national origin is prohibited, but humorous comments are allowed.

The students said that they hoped Facebook would conclude that the decision to close the page was made in error. There are pages on Facebook that consistently publish much “worse” content, said the students, though they admitted they sometimes approved posts that were “inflammatory.”

A successor Secrets page has already been created, with a new tagline: “Keep it civil.” The page also pledges to moderate posts more carefully, in line with Facebook’s guidelines.

Daisy Delogu, chair of the department of romance languages and literatures at Chicago, said that to her knowledge there was not an issue of discrimination against French faculty or students on campus. Delogu said it was plausible that the post was a spoof, and that Facebook “displayed an excess of zeal in this case.”

Referencing a recent New York Times article about the role Facebook has played in inciting violence in developing countries, Delogu said that there was evidence of “inconsistency” in Facebook’s policing of inappropriate material.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has said the platform has difficulty walking the line between protecting free speech and prohibiting hate speech.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy group, said the Secrets ban is a “great example of why regulation of so-called hate speech is always doomed to fail.”

“While most Americans would ridicule the idea that jokes about the French constitute hate speech, the authorities, whether they be at Facebook, in governments or on college campuses, have to apply the rules equally, leading to absurd results like this,” said Shibley.

John Drew, assistant professor of communications at Adelphi University, said Facebook has a poor track record regulating hate speech. “For every instance of questionable speech that Facebook removes from its platform, there are dozens of others that remain visible, and this is because Facebook has yet to prioritize ethical standards across the board,” said Drew.

Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University, agreed that Facebook’s standards lack clarity and consistency, and as such “will not satisfy anyone’s needs.”

Eric Stoller, a higher education consultant and blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said that given the scrutiny Facebook is under, the site may become stricter in enforcing its guidelines. But Facebook is still an important tool for engagement and community building to student groups, said Stoller, as long as they are wiling to follow the rules. ​

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