Facebook researchers wanted to block racist hate speech, but executives reportedly dismissed their solution to avoid backlash from ‘conservative partners’

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in New York City on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
  • Facebook researchers wanted to fix its algorithm so the worst hate speech would be removed.
  • But execs reportedly dismissed their plan to avoid angering the company’s “conservative partners.”
  • The report highlights yet another instance of employees voicing concerns to leadership and being rejected.

Facebook researchers wanted to fix the platform’s algorithm last year so that the “worst of the worst” kind of hate speech and racism would be automatically removed.

But company executives dismissed their plan over fears of angering “conservative partners,” according to internal documents viewed by The Washington Post in a Monday report.

An internal team surveyed 10,000 Facebook users and showed them examples of hate speech, like a user who posted an image of a chimpanzee with the caption, “Here’s one of Michelle Obama.” Or crude comments about “The Squad,” the nickname given to a quartet of Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The person called the group, which includes two women who are Muslim, “swami rag heads,” and another user called them “black c—s” in the comments section, according to the documents as the Post reported. 

The company was sure to include self-identified White conservatives in the research to avoid objection from leadership, which has a history of making decisions to keep the right happy, per the documents.

The team found after two years conducting its “Worst of the Worst,” known as Project Wow, that the most vicious hate speech users voted on is most of the time directed at minorities, and its algorithms were better at cracking down on comments that were harmful against White People but not people of color, the Washington Post reported. 

The researchers proposed a tweak so that hate speech against Black, Jewish, LGBTQ, Muslim, and multiracial people would be taken down through an automated system.

But top brass, including VP of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan, worried that the plan would be perceived as protecting certain vulnerable groups over others. A document was prepared for him warning that Facebook’s right-leaning partners wouldn’t agree with protecting the group of minorities since “hate targeted toward trans people is an expression of opinion.”

Facebook, now known as Meta, did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Company spokesperson Andy Stone told The Post that “the Worst of the Worst project helped show us what kinds of hate speech our technology was and was not effectively detecting and understand what forms of it people believe to be the most insidious.”

He also said the company did roll out parts of the project but not all, since doing so would have resulted in “fewer automated removals of hate speech.”

The report is another example of company employees voicing their concern to management as well as offering solutions to fix the problems in question, only to be dismissed for the sake of optics, profit, or growth.

Other such instances have been exposed via the “Facebook Papers,” a trove of company documents shared with regulators and the wider press by employee-turned whistleblower Frances Haugen. Those documents appear to be separate from the ones viewed by The Post.

Monday’s report also highlights how Meta strives to stay neutral when moderating content on its platform, an act that negatively affects minorities and people of color. Many conservatives have launched a crusade against Big Tech, alleging that the largest internet platforms serve a liberal agenda and are hellbent on silencing them.

A group of NYU researchers disproved those claims earlier this year. 

The company has based decisions on its desire to appear politically natural before. In 2020, CEO Mark Zuckerberg greenlit a change to his platform’s algorithm that throttled traffic to left-leaning news organizations so that conservative media outlets wouldn’t be disproportionately affected, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.