Brian Sims – Photo: Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Brian Sims, the gay Pennsylvania state representative and outspoken equality activist, found himself temporarily banned from Facebook yesterday after sharing an anti-gay comment from someone who called him a “faggot.”
A woman, “Jill Freb,” allegedly from Baltimore, wrote to the lawmaker saying, “You get out faggot” last week.
Sims, never one to shy away from a fight, reshared her comments on his Facebook page and asked people to report Freb, who subsequently changed her name and profile picture.
But things took a bizarre turn when Sims discovered yesterday that he had been banned from Facebook for sharing Freb’s offensive comment.
“Last night, I got back from the governor’s swearing-in ceremony,” he tells Metro Weekly. “I went to put up some information about the swearing-in and a trans candidate who’s announcing a campaign today, and I got a notification that, because of that specific post with her telling me to “get out” and calling me a “faggot” — not even the other posts associated with it — I had been blocked from all my accounts, both public and personal.”
The lawmaker quickly took to Twitter to vent his frustrations, before updating this morning to say that access to his Facebook account had been restored, with an automated apology from the social network.
Although his accounts were restored, Sims has yet to receive a full explanation for why he was banned in the first place. And Sims says it raises questions about Facebook’s process for reviewing content on the site.
“The issue has got to be prioritization,” says Sims. “We get that Facebook is a multi-billion dollar, multinational corporation. So, no, I don’t expect that for every user, there’s a corresponding employee reviewing any and all complaints. However, both anecdotally and in my own personal and professional life, I’ve seen so many examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, xenophobia, both direct and broad, and have called out to who Facebook tells us is responsible for reviewing those, and nothing happens.
“Or, something like this happens, where somehow the flip side of the appropriate action is what Facebook decided to take,” he continues. “Taking no action against those kind of statements is wrong. Taking actions like this, where you’re just patently wrong from the get-go, is also wrong. But all of it is an indication that they’re either not taking this seriously, or they’re not doing it competently.”
Asked if he believes he was reported by political opponents for a later post referencing Freb’s comments, in which he criticized people who purport to be “Christians” but regularly use anti-gay slurs, Sims said he was flagged only for reposting Freb’s message.
But he says there’s a bigger issue involved about what sort of standards or criteria Facebook is using when deciding to ban people from the platform.
“That’s the kind of conversation that could and should take us a long time to have,” he says. “If I were a multi-billion bordering on trillion-dollar company, I’d like to think I would be paying for the best advice I could get about this.
“I’d be happy to work with Facebook if Facebook is looking for my advice and guidance on this. That said, every single day, I work with women and people of color whose professions, whose expertise, whose talent is making these kinds of decisions,” he continues. “And it doesn’t sound like Facebook is working with them. I’m a state representative, and ultimately my responsibility is to my constituents in Philadelphia, not giving free diversity advice to one of the wealthiest companies in the world…. The point is: what they’re doing right now isn’t working.”
He adds that part of the reason the story has even received press is because Sims enjoys a fair amount of privilege due to his race, gender, position of power, and a network of Facebook followers who helped him get in contact with Facebook to quickly resolve the situation.
“The kind of thing that happened to me happens to women, to people of color, immigrants all the time,” he says. “Can we talk about whether racial or ethnic slurs should be banned? Of course it should be. Can we talk about whether using overtly sexist or misogynistic language should be banned? It should be. But those things aren’t happening, and so to talk about ‘Is this bad and is this good?’ is reductive of the larger conversation that Facebook needs to be having and that Facebook needs to be funding.”
TEST: Am I out of Facebook jail FOR GETTING CALLED a faggot on Facebook yet? *If so, Facebook HQ it sounds like we need to have a serious conversation about algorithms, discrimination, and regulation.
Posted by Brian Sims on Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Sims also notes that his decision to repost Freb’s comments — as he has done with other hate mail he’s received — is to call Facebook to account for a lack of clear standards.
“I receive enough hate mail on a daily basis, that if that was my end game, to just simply regurgitate the negativity that was aimed at me, that’s what my social media would be based in. But that’s not the purpose,” he says. “The purpose is, from time to time, when there is a type of negativity aimed at me, or what I perceive as discrimination happening to me, to understand that I have both the privilege and resources to do something about it. If it’s happening to me, its happening to countless other people.”
A Facebook spokesperson admitted the error in a statement to Metro Weekly.
“We allow people to share messages they receive even hateful ones,” the statement reads. “Removing this post was a mistake in misunderstanding that it was discussing a message Representative Sims had himself experienced. The post does not violate our Community Standards and has been restored and Representative Sims is no longer in a feature block.”
The spokesperson also noted that the company’s Community Standards define hate speech as direct attacks on people based on protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender. The speech can be either violent or dehumanizing in nature, and calls for deliberate exclusion or segregation are treated as attacks on those protected classes.
As was the case with Sims, people may choose to share content containing someone else’s hate speech in order to raise awareness or educate others. In those cases, Facebook’s policy is to allow the content, but users can assist Facebook in determining whether the content should remain up by explaining why they chose to share or highlight the hate speech in question. (This also remains the case for slurs that people may use to refer to themselves in an empowering way.)
In the case of Sims, the spokesperson noted, upon re-reviewing the post in question, Facebook realized the mistake it had made and restored the content, along with Sims’ ability to post.
“This isn’t just about getting my Facebook page turned back on,” says Sims. “This either needs to continue or start a conversation about what Facebook is doing, authentically, substantively, to make sure they’re not culling legitimate speech and not endorsing, supporting, or lifting up illegitimate speech — whether it’s hate speech or fake accounts.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a response from a Facebook spokesperson.