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Daily Digest | A little bit of oversight

Written by The Uptake Published on     2 mins read

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What happens when tech companies attempt to swat down hate speech?

Hi. Brady here.

I recall standing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square when the Arab Spring was taking place. There were demonstrations every Friday—millioniya that never really involved a full million people. Some foreign correspondents hyped up Facebook and Twitter as catalysts for change in Egypt and, more broadly, the region. Like many descriptions of significant events, that characterization was reductive but contained some truth.

Sometimes, I think of the largest tech companies as sovereign entities. Many millions, if not billions, of people are part of their “citizenry,” subject to their regulations. Their globe-spanning “communities” shape culture and identity. They impact real-world events—economically, socially, politically.

That’s all to say some platforms aren’t simply products, despite what most tech press says. And the information that is transmitted and amplified through these channels can lead to serious consequences.

This manifests every day, everywhere. There’s disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. There are influence campaigns directed by state actors. And, more commonly, there’s hate speech. We’ve all seen it. This is precisely what’s happening in Myanmar.

In the past few days, we looked at one case where the Facebook Oversight Board overturned the decision to take down a post involving hate speech initially considered to be insulting toward Chinese people. The board’s logic was that the post in question didn’t criticize Chinese individuals, but was commentary on power structures instead.

I’m still uncertain what to think about tech companies attempting to evaluate personal expression, especially when local contexts are difficult to grok. Measuring the author’s intent is not the same as anticipating the impact it holds within readers—and the actions that may ensue. The lines aren’t even blurry; they aren’t lines at all.

Be good to one another. We can all use a little more of that.

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