Facebook’s bullying and harassment policy explicitly allows for “public figures” to be targeted in ways otherwise banned on the site, including “calls for [their] death”, according to a tranche of internal moderator guidelines leaked to the Guardian.
Public figures are defined by Facebook to include people whose claim to fame may be simply a large social media following or infrequent coverage in local newspapers.They are considered to be permissible targets for certain types of abuse “because we want to allow discussion, which often includes critical commentary of people who are featured in the news”, Facebook explains to its moderators.
It comes as social networks face renewed criticism over abuse on their platforms, including of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and of professional footballers, in particular black stars such as Marcus Rashford.Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has changed its policies in response to the criticism, introducing new rules to cover abuse sent through direct messages and committing to cooperate with law enforcement over hate speech.
In the detailed guidelines seen by the Guardian, running to more than 300 pages and dating from December 2020, Facebook spells out how it differentiates between protections for private and public individuals.
“For public figures, we remove attacks that are severe as well as certain attacks where the public figure is directly tagged in the post or comment. For private individuals, our protection goes further: we remove content that’s meant to degrade or shame, including, for example, claims about someone’s sexual activity,” it says.
Private individuals cannot be targeted with “calls for death” on Facebook but public figures simply cannot be “purposefully exposed” to such calls: it is legitimate, under Facebook’s harassment policies, to call for the death of a minor local celebrity so long as the user does not tag them in to the post, for example.
Similarly, public figures cannot be “exposed” to content “that praises, celebrates or mocks their death or serious physical injury”.The company’s definition of public figures is broad. All politicians count, whatever the level of government and whether they have been elected or are standing for office, as does any journalist who is employed “to write/speak publicly”.
Online fame is enough to qualify provided the user has more than 100,000 fans or followers on one of their social media accounts. Being in the news is enough to strip users of protections.
“People who are mentioned in the title, subtitle or preview of 5 or more news articles or media pieces within the last 2 years” are counted as public figures. A broad exception to that rule is that children under the age of 13 never count.
Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, described the revelations as “flabbergasting”.
“Despite high-profile attacks in recent years, including the murder of Jo Cox MP and the US Capitol domestic terrorist attacks, promoting violence against public servants is sanctioned by Facebook if they aren’t tagged in the post,” Ahmed said, adding that the safety of other public officials and figures could be put at risk as a result.
“Highly visible abuse of public figures and celebrities acts as a warning – a proverbial head on a pike – to others. It is used by identity-based hate actors who target women and minorities to dissuade participation by the very groups that campaigners for tolerance and inclusion have worked so hard to bring into public life. Just because someone isn’t tagged doesn’t mean that the message isn’t heard loud and clear.”
There is another broad exception for – and protection of – those who are “involuntary” public figures. These are public figures “who are not true celebrities, and who have not engaged with their fame, UNLESS they have been accused of criminal activity”, according to the guidelines.
Facebook holds a secret list of these involuntary public figures, which is not contained in the documents seen by the Guardian. But social media presence is indicated as de facto evidence that a user has “engaged with their fame”.
The attempt to exhaustively define all aspects of harassment means Facebook’s rules also include surprising specifics. Users can bully dead people, for instance, but only if they died before the year 1900, and they are allowed to “bully” fictional characters (moderators are told to take “NO ACTION” against the content “Homer Simpson is a bitch”).
But the decision to let users bully and harass even minor public figures in ways that the company bans for those classed as private individuals is likely to spark concern among prominent users who have complained that Facebook fails to do enough to protect public figures from abuse on its main platform or on Instagram.
Facebook’s bullying and harassment policy does protect public figures from attacks including direct threats of severe physical harm, derogatory sexualised terms or threats to release personal information.
But it is understood the company believes in letting people question or criticise public figures, with insiders highlighting “figurative speech” such as “Boris Johnson should just drop dead or resign already” or “just die already [Jair] Bolsonaro, you are not making it any better for your people”.
The definition of a public figure is set to be updated to “raise the threshold … in increasingly digitally engaged times”, sources say, including providing additional protections for activists and journalists who are already treated as high-risk individuals.
The reason some content is removed only at the point a public figure is tagged is because Facebook believes it becomes more of an “intentional harm” and means they are more likely to see it.
In February, Instagram committed to shutting the accounts of users who sent abusive direct messages to footballers. Previously, the company had not extended its rules to cover DMs, but a new “lower tolerance” for abuse was brought in after a number of prominent black footballers including Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe and Lauren James spoke out about online racial harassment.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We think it’s important to allow critical discussion of politicians and other people in the public eye. But that doesn’t mean we allow people to abuse or harass them on our apps.
“We remove hate speech and threats of serious harm no matter who the target is, and we’re exploring more ways to protect public figures from harassment.
“We regularly consult with safety experts, human rights defenders, journalists and activists to get feedback on our policies and make sure they’re in the right place.”
Asked why the leaked guidelines are not made public by Facebook, the spokesperson added: “By publishing our community standards, the notes from the regular meetings we have with global teams to discuss and update them, and our quarterly reports on how we’re doing to enforce our policies, we provide more transparency than any technology company. We also intend to make even more of these documents public over time.”