My satirical post about being oppressed as a white man was removed - then I was locked out of my account

In my piece, several stark-naked Xhosa teenagers suggest our British narrator is oppressed because he's wearing trousers, and remove them

Emlyn Pearce
Thursday 31 March 2016 12:07
Comments
'Did a human or machine make the decision to ban me?'
'Did a human or machine make the decision to ban me?'

A few weeks ago, when the computer AlphaGo beat the (human) Go world champion, some of the more sensationalist media commentators asked whether one day computers would overtake humans entirely, and perhaps even enslave us. I remember standing in the kitchen of my flat, laughing at the sci-fi absurdity of this idea - little suspecting that within days I would be wondering whether the Algorithmic Tyranny was already underway, and whether free and open political discussion had already become its victim.

My journey into the Kafkaesque labyrinths of our brave new world began on 23rd March when I wrote a satirical anti-racist post on my Facebook blog. The story was pretty simple - our narrator, a middle-class white man, is trapped in a Glaswegian alleyway without his trousers as the result of a strange series of events. He recounts how his day first took a turn for the peculiar when a Muslim woman confronted him in the street with a list of crimes associated with Christianity (“Apartheid! Abortion clinic shootings! The Lord’s Resistance Army!”).

Jumping on a bus to escape his assailant, our narrator is then confronted by a group of Asian teenagers who accuse him of being a sex offender in the vein of several high-profile middle-class white men (Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris), and a Sikh man who quotes the Bible as evidence that Christianity supports rape. Finally, after jumping off the bus, the strangest encounter of all: several stark-naked Xhosa teenagers on their way to an initiation ceremony, who suggest that our narrator is only wearing trousers because he is being oppressed by his society. His trousers are promptly stolen as an act of ‘liberation’, along with his Thundercat underpants, and he is left stranded and begging the people of Facebook for sartorial assistance.

I hope the satirical nature of this tale doesn’t need to be explained to you, dear reader. The messages I received from members of the Muslim community over the days that followed were extremely humbling: some told me that what I had written had made them feel more hopeful for the prospects of their children growing up in non-Muslim countries. Several teachers even asked my permission to use the piece as a teaching aid to discuss discrimination in their classrooms.

Within days I was being interviewed about the post by the Independent, and it had been shared by high profile websites like LAD Bible and The Poke. Then, after six days, and having accumulated 30,000 shares and 60,000 likes, Facebook abruptly removed the post for ‘violating community standards’; furthermore, as punishment for my unspecified crime, I was banned from Facebook for three days, and was only able to post on my blog via a friend’s account.

Since then, I have felt like some sort of cyber-Alice falling down a crazy rabbit warren of automated forms and electronic dead ends. I don’t know if my post was removed by a human, or, as many of my followers have suggested, an algorithm. I don’t even know why it was removed - the ‘community standards’ that were violated are nothing more than a vague set of allusions to users ‘feeling safe’ (they don’t specify which users this refers to - racists? Islamophobes? White supremacists?).

Most frustrating of all is the fact that I cannot possibly avoid repeating whatever crime the invisible Facebook judges have found me guilty of, because I don’t even know what it is. All my attempts to explain my case to an actual human at Facebook have lead nowhere.

There were certainly a few people who thought the story was a lie aimed at attacking minorities rather than a piece of fiction aimed at supporting them, and others who didn’t bother to read beyond the first line before venting in the comments. I have every sympathy for these people - I know that members of persecuted groups are confronted with so much hatred online, and their defences are so heightened, that it’s hardly surprising that a small minority may jump to conclusions without properly digesting what they read.

But the post was seen by 6.5 million people: even if only one in a thousand complained, Facebook would have heard from 6500 people who were unhappy with what I had written. The message sent to these people by the post’s removal is perhaps the most harmful message of all: that they were right to assume that they were being denigrated; that they have been subject to attack from a widely shared and widely approved-of piece of writing. In its blunt and inhuman censorship, Facebook has only increased these users’ (misplaced) sense of persecution.

The seriousness of Facebook’s sloppy censorship cannot be overstated. This single website is our most important political forum: it is our 21st century Speakers’ Corner, our coffee houses, our suffragette societies, and our Quaker meeting rooms, all rolled into one.

Some Facebook entities have even evolved into powerful political forces in the real world, the most prominent being the far-right Britain First. All of this political discussion is moderated by, at best, unelected and unaccountable people; at worst it is the responsibility of an even less accountable set of wires and microchips that can erase content without a human arbiter ever becoming involved.

The irony of this form of censorship lies not only in which content it deletes, but also which it lets through. In the last few days I have been inundated with stories from followers of reported posts that were deemed not to undermine ‘community standards’: beheadings, beatings, and rape jokes among them. In the same week that my post was widely shared and praised by members of the Muslim community before being censored, Britain First was allowed to share an image of primary school children doing yoga, with a caption implying that they were being forced to perform Muslim prayers. This blatant falsehood - which some would argue borders on incitement to hatred - has been deemed ‘not in violation of community standards’. The problem isn't that these rules exist, it is that they are inconsistently applied with no way of appealing to a real person.

Those commentators who thought that AlphaGo heralded the enslavement of humanity made one crucial error in their assumptions: they all supposed that computers would take over because the speed and complexity of their thought processes would become superior to our own. Now, it seems that the opposite may be true: computers are already stifling human beings because their algorithms are oblivious to the very subtleties of thought - irony, humour, satire, hyperbole - that make us human in the first place.

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