Op-Ed: The day Facebook accused me of hate speech

A collage of notifications
(David Chartrand screenshots; Los Angeles Times illustration)

There are many things you cannot post on Facebook. You can’t make terrorist threats. You cannot incite a riot. You cannot upload pictures of humans having sex with wombats.

You definitely cannot post the words “stupid Americans.” Just like that: the word “stupid” alongside the word “Americans.” I know it seems stupid, but since stupidity is the whole point here, please follow along carefully.

About a month ago I uploaded a post that contained the sentence “Yes, Virginia, there are stupid Americans.” Do not ask why I wrote those words. I’m the victim here; I can’t be expected to recall everything. My post had no particular purpose or rationale. What’s the fun of being a humor writer if you can’t be pointlessly irrational now and then?


A screenshot of a post by David Chartrand: "Yes, Virginia, there are stupid Americans."
(David Chartrand)

Three minutes later — three minutes — Facebook sent me an alert that my post had been intercepted and blocked from publication.

A notification says "Your post goes against our Community Standards on hate and inferiority."
(David Chartrand)

I was then given the option to accept or disagree with the Facebook decision. I was not given the option to speak with an attorney. I chose “Disagree,” as shown here in Exhibit 3.

A notification asks, "What would you like to do?"
(David Chartrand)

Facebook then sent a reply confirming that I disagreed with its decisions. Just in case I wanted to forget the whole thing or something.

A notification says, "You disagreed with the decision. Thanks for your feedback."
(David Chartrand)

Agreeing to disagree apparently wasn’t good enough. Facebook insisted that I explain why I disagreed with its decision to block my post about stupid Americans. This triggered a lengthy exchange about “Community Standards.”

Screenshot by David Chartrand of a Facebook notification "Why do you disagree with the decision?"
(David Chartrand)

Five minutes after submitting my disagreement, Facebook rejected my disagreement. Five minutes. Courts take longer to handle parking violations. I was assigned a case number and a deadline for a final appeal.

A notification witha "Oversight Board" reference ID.
(David Chartrand)

Then came my arraignment. All appeals are handled by Facebook’s Oversight Board. Clearly, the playing field here was not level, but I stood my ground. It was as if I were sitting on one side of a seesaw and Charles Barkley was sitting on the other.

Now we come to my favorite part. Before I had a chance to write “WTF??” (which may or may not be permitted on Facebook), the Oversight Board expanded on its view of “Community Standards,” the rules that I stood accused of violating. The two words “stupid Americans,” it said, constitute hate speech. At least to Facebook they do.

A notification on "Our standards on hate speech and inferiority."
(David Chartrand)

It was a standoff. A gunslinger moment. I was on trial without a courtroom. Facebook submitted a series of evidentiary images about Community Standards (Exhibits 8 through 10). I objected again. I assume my objections were considered, but I can’t be sure. I could not hear or see a thing — no judge and no jury of my peers. Nor could I find the courthouse bathrooms.

All I remember was a Facebook reply stating that any juxtaposition of the words “stupid” and “Americans” is an offense against the community. It was never clear whether we were discussing my community or Facebook’s. I was pretty sure my community had no standards, let alone any opinions about stupid Americans.

Facebook rested its case with a dramatic closing argument about free expression and personal dignity. Facebook was using my own argument against me. I should have objected again, but I was in the bathroom at the time.

Notifications of "The Purpose of the Board" and "Dignity."
(David Chartrand)

I should point out that my jury had been seated before my offense occurred. After censoring my post, Facebook sent me the names and contact information for the members of its Oversight Board. I am pretty certain that our nation’s legal system requires that both parties be involved in choosing jurors, and the jury is seated before the trial begins, not after. Hey, I’ve seen all of the John Grisham movies.

I scanned the list of names. It included photographs and bios for each member of the Oversight Board along with each member’s experience in sorting hate speech from humorous commentary. This list includes law professors, journalists, a former prime minister of Denmark, a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. I still have the list in case you wish to contact them. I did not. I had had enough of stupid people for one day.

I considered my fate and did what any thinking American would do when faced with the loss of his constitutional rights. I surrendered.

I quietly returned to my first post and its original purpose, which by now I had forgotten. I made a few edits so that it no longer read, “Yes, Virginia there are stupid Americans.” The new version read as follows:

A post reads, "Yes, Virginia, there are stupid people."
(David Chartrand)

I never heard from Facebook or its Oversight Board again. I had learned my lesson. Any Facebook post containing the words “stupid Americans” cannot survive Facebook’s “hate speech” test. There may be a good reason for this and, boy, if I knew I wouldn’t be sitting here. I recommend that you alert your friends.

It’s possible that some Facebook users would be terrified by the words “stupid Americans,” but I doubt it. I also suspect that the members of Facebook’s Oversight Board dread their role as censors. Most of them strike me as highly accomplished, intelligent people who love their jobs and do not enjoy their role as public censor. God knows there is little enough fun in the world as it is.

I also doubt that anyone cares about my joust with Facebook over hate speech. After all, I am but a voice quacking in the void.

However, I am certain of one thing. Facebook readers have no reason to fear me or anything I write. The only thing they have to fear is Facebook itself.

David Chartrand writes humorous commentary from his home in Olathe, Kan.