Beatings, cattle prods and mock executions: Kidnapped journalist reveals horror of 6 weeks captive in Sudan.
A British journalist who was captured, chained up and tortured by the Sudanese authorities for more than six weeks was able to produce a film about his hellish ordeal by hiding a memory card in his anus.
Phil Cox crossed the border into Sudan along with his colleague Daoud Hari in December 2016 with the aim of reporting on the plight of people in the Darfur region – but was soon abducted by armed militiamen.
During their capture, the pair discovered the Sudanese authorities had tracked their movements and put a “capture or kill” bounty on their heads for more than £250,000.
As they neared the Jebel Marra mountains, the team were kidnapped by a militia in Darfur and held hostage by guards armed with AK47s. They were chained to a tree in the desert for a week and beaten.
It was at this point that Mr Cox was able to trick his captors into filming themselves on his camera. He then took the memory card and, in order to preserve the footage he had already obtained, wrapped it in a strip of black plastic and hid it inside himself.
The contents of that memory card are to feature in a two-part film by Channel 4 News, which commissioned Mr Cox and Mr Hari to report on the impact of illegal migration through Sudan and investigate allegations of Sudanese government attacks on civilians in Darfur using chemical weapons.
Their ordeal did not end in the desert, however. The militia transferred the pair to the Sudanese Government authorities, who detained them in the notorious Kobar Prison, Khartoum.
Writing in The Guardianon Wednesday, Mr Cox describes how on the flight from El Fasher to Khartoum, men threatened to throw him off the plane.
“The plane was taxiing, and I started to shout, to beg for my life,” he recounted. “My body swayed with the movement of the plane – then I heard the voice of the security chief from the offices in El Fasher. ‘Be a man,’ he said to me, and laughed.”
This was the start of weeks of mistreatment. During his 40-day detention, Mr Cox was beaten, given electric shocks with a cattle prod and once subjected to a mock execution.
After repeated overtures from the US and UK governments, Mr Hari – a Sudanese national granted asylum in the US – was released on 18 January, followed by Mr Cox on 1 February.
At the time, Sudanese officials told reporters that Mr Cox had been “pardoned” by President Omar al-Bashir. An official told the EFE news agency that Mr Cox had entered the country illegally, and that his intention to investigate Amnesty International claims of chemical weapons use – and thereby his “involvement in planned activities harmful to national security… has been proved”.
Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear said: “We sent Daoud and Phil to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Sudan, but we never thought that they themselves would fall victim to these horrific abuses.
“They were beaten, tortured and electrocuted, simply for being journalists. Their story from within the belly of the Sudanese security state is one of the most frightening we have ever broadcast on Channel 4 News.
Maddy Crowther from Waging Peace, a UK-based NGO campaigning for human rights in Sudan, told The Independent: “Phil Cox and Daoud Hari’s harrowing experiences should remind us of the Sudan government’s true face.
“This incident should call into question the UK’s decision to bring Sudan in from the cold, when its officials are capable of engaging in ‘strategic dialogue’ with UK officials on the one hand, and commissioning the detention, interrogation and torture of one of our citizens on the other.
“I’m grateful for Cox and Hari’s bravery in shining a light on the forgotten victims of government repression in Sudan. We need to keep shouting about the individuals still suffering similar abuse in Khartoum’s prisons and black sites.”
Mr Cox said: “Daoud and I experienced first-hand the lengths that the Sudanese government will go to stop any independent reporting on what is happening in Darfur.
“Our time in prison gave us a terrifying insight into the brutal tactics of the Sudanese security forces, and it also revealed the arbitrary and heavy-handed way any perceived opposition or anti-government criticism is dealt with.”
Scientists trace world’s languages back to single African mother tongue.
Scientists say they have traced the world’s 6,000 modern languages — from English to Mandarin — back to a single “mother tongue,” an ancestral language spoken in Africa 50,000 to 70,000 years ago.
New research, published in the journal Science, suggests this single ancient language resulted in human civilization — a Diaspora — as well as advances in art and hunting tool technology, and laid the groundwork for all the world’s cultures.
The research, by Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, also found that speech evolved far earlier than previously thought. And the findings implied, though did not prove, that modern language originated only once, an issue of controversy among linguists, according to the New York Times.
Before Atkinson came up with the evidence for a single African origin of language, some scientists had argued that language evolved independently in different parts of the world.
Atkinson found that the first populations migrating from Africa laid the groundwork for all theworld’s cultures by taking their single language with them. “It was the catalyst that spurred the human expansion that we all are a product of,” Atkinson said, the Wall Street Journal reported.Atkinson traced the number distinct sounds, or phonemes — consonants, vowels and tones — in 504 world languages, finding compelling evidence that they can be traced back to a long-forgotten dialect spoken by our Stone Age ancestors, according to the Daily Mail.
Atkinson also hypothesized that languages with the most sounds would be the oldest, while those spoken by smaller breakaway groups would utilize fewer sounds as variation and complexity diminished.
The study found that some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, or sounds, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13, the Times reported. English has about 45 phonemes.
The phoneme pattern mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity as humans spread across the globe from sub-Saharan Africa around 70,000 years ago.
Australia wants to ban unvaccinated children from preschool.
No jab, no play. So says the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who has announced a proposal to bar unvaccinated children from attending preschools and daycare centres.
Currently, 93 per cent of Australian children receive the standard childhood vaccinations, including those for measles, mumps and rubella, but the government wants to lift this to 95 per cent. This is the level required to stop the spread of infectious disease and to protect children who are too young to be immunised or cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
Federal childcare subsidies have been unavailable to the families of unvaccinated children since January 2016, and a version of the new “no jab, no play” policy is already in place in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Other states and territories only exclude unvaccinated children from preschools during infectious disease outbreaks.
The proposed policy is based on Victoria’s model, which is the strictest. It requires all children attending childcare to be fully immunised, unless they have a medical exemption, such as a vaccine allergy.
Kids miss out
Nesha Hutchinson from the Australian Childcare Alliance – an advocacy group for childhood education – says that a nationwide “no jab, no play” policy would be likely to raise immunisation rates.
However, she is concerned that children of parents who object to vaccination would miss out on quality early childhood education. The policy may also affect children from disadvantaged families, who are less likely to be immunised, and risk becoming further marginalised if they lose access to education.
Punitive measures may also galvanise the anti-vaccination movement, warns Julie Leask at the University of Sydney. “People without any previous interest in vaccination may defend anti-vaccination activists and join their cause because they are concerned about the threat to civil liberties,” she says.
Leask prefers the New South Wales model, which makes it procedurally complex but not impossible to send unvaccinated kids to childcare, and also ensures that children’s immunisation records are checked. This policy has increased child immunisation rates by the same amount as the harsher approach in Victoria, she says. Leask also believes that campaigns and reminders are good ways to improve vaccination rates without inciting opposition.
What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege
Yesterday I was tagged in a post by an old high school friend, asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism. I feel compelled not only to publish his query but also my response to it, as it may be a helpful discourse for more than just a handful of folks on Facebook.
Here’s his post:
“To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this ‘White Privilege‘ of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing.
“Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).
“So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.”
Here’s my response:
Hi, Jason. First off, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your post and made it part of mine. I think the heart of what you’ve asked of your friends of color is extremely important, and I think my response needs much more space than as a reply on your feed. I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding.
Coincidentally, over the last few days I have been thinking about sharing some of the incidents of prejudice/racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime – in fact, I just spoke with my sister Lesa about how to best do this yesterday – because I realized many of my friends (especially the white ones) have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.
There are two reasons for this :
1) Because not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s – it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large not to make a fuss, speak out, or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which sadly, it often does).
2) Fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.
So, again, I’m glad you asked, because I really want to answer. But as I do, please know a few things first: This is not even close to the whole list; I’m cherrypicking because none of us have all day. And I’ve been really lucky. Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured.
I’m going to go in chronological order so you might begin to glimpse the tonnage and why what many white folks might feel is a “Where did all of this come from?” moment in society has been festering individually and collectively for the lifetime of pretty much every black or brown person living in America today regardless of wealth or opportunity.
Some of what I share covers sexism, too – intersectionality is another term I’m sure you’ve heard and want to put quotes around, but it’s a real thing, too, just like white privilege. But you’ve requested a focus on personal experiences with racism, so here it goes:
1. When I was three, my family moved into an upper-middle class, all-white neighborhood. We had a big backyard, so my parents built a pool. Not the only pool on the block, but the only one neighborhood boys started throwing rocks into. White boys.
One day my mom ID’d one as the boy from across the street, went to his house, told his mother and fortunately, his mother believed mine. My mom not only got an apology, but also had that boy jump in our pool and retrieve every single rock. No more rocks after that. Then Mom even invited him to come over to swim sometime if he asked permission. Everyone became friends.
This one has a happy ending because my mom was and is badass about matters like these, but I hope you can see thatthe white privilege in this situation isbeing able to move into a “nice” neighborhood and be accepted – not harassed, made to feel unwelcome, or prone to acts of vandalism and hostility.
2. When my older sister was five, a white boy named Mark called her a “nigger” after she beat him in a race at school. She didn’t know what it meant but in her gut, she knew it was bad. This was the first time I’d seen my father the kind of angry that has nowhere to go.
I somehow understood it was because not only had some boy verbally assaulted his daughter and had gotten away with it, it had way too early introduced her (and me) to that term and the reality of what it meant – that some white people would be cruel and careless with black people’s feelings just because of our skin color. Or our achievement.
If it’s unclear in any way, the point here isif you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life, where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.
3. Sophomore year of high school. I had Mr. Melrose for Algebra 2. Some time within the first few weeks of class, he points out that I’m “the only spook” in the class. This was meant to be funny. It wasn’t. So, I doubt it will surprise you I was relieved when he took medical leave after suffering a heart attack and was replaced by a sub for the rest of the semester.
The point here is if you’ve never been “the only one” of your race in a class, at a party, on a job, and so on, and/or it’s been pointed out in a “playful” fashion by the authority figure in said situation – you have white privilege.
4. When we started getting our college acceptances senior year, I remember some white male classmates pissed that another black classmate had gotten into UCLA while they didn’t. They said that affirmative action had given him “their spot” and it wasn’t fair. An actual friend of theirs. Who’d worked his ass off.
The point here is if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it” – that is white privilege.
5. When I got accepted to Harvard (as a fellow AP student, you were witness to what an academic beast I was in high school, yes?), three separate times I encountered white strangers as I prepped for my maiden trip to Cambridge that rankle to this day.
The first was the white doctor giving me a physical at Kaiser.
Me: “I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate.”
Doctor: “Where are you going?”
Doctor: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”
The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard’s suggested “what to bring with you” list.
Store employee: “Where are you going?”
Store employee: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”
The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said “what to bring” to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton, and in front of a white woman sending her child’s boxes to wherever.
Woman, to the boy: “What college are you going to?”
Woman, to me: “Where are you sending your boxes?”
Woman: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”
I think: “No, bitch, the one downtown next to the liquor store.”
But I say, gesturing to my labeled boxes: “Yes, the one in Massachusetts.”
Then she says congratulations, but it’s too fucking late.
6. In my freshman college tutorial, our small group of 4-5 was assigned to read Thoreau, Emerson, Malcolm X, Joseph Conrad, Dreiser, and so on. When it was the week to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one white boy boldly claimed he couldn’t even get through it because he couldn’t relate and didn’t think he should be forced to read it.
I don’t remember the words I said, but I still remember the feeling. I think it’s what doctors refer to as chandelier pain – as soon as a sensitive area on a patient is touched, they shoot through the roof. That’s what I felt.
I know I said something like my whole life I’ve had to read “things that don’t have anything to do with me or that I relate to,” but I find a way anyway because that’s what learning is about – trying to understand other people’s perspectives. The point here is – the canon of literaturestudied in the United States, as well as the majority of television and movies – have focused primarily on the works or achievements of white men.
So if you have never experienced or considered how damaging it is/was/could be to grow up without myriad role models and images in school that reflect you in your required reading material or in the mainstream media – that is white privilege.
7. All seniors at Harvard are invited to a fancy, seated group lunch with our respective dorm Masters. (Yes, they were called “Masters” up until this February when they changed it to “Faculty Deans,” but that’s just a tasty little side dish to the main course of this remembrance.)
While we were being served by the Dunster House cafeteria staff – the black ladies from Haiti and Boston that ran the line daily; I still remember Jackie’s kindness and warmth to this day – Master Sally mused out loud how proud they must be to be serving the nation’s best and brightest.
I don’t know if they heard her, but I did and it made me uncomfortable and sick.
The point here is, if you’ve never been caught off guard when you are just trying to enjoy a meal by a well-paid faculty member’s patronizing and racist assumptions about how grateful black people must feel to be in their presence – you have white privilege.
8. While writing on a television show in my 30s, my new white male boss – who had only known me for a few days – had unbeknownst to me told another writer on staff he thought I was conceited, didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and didn’t have the talent I thought I had.
And what exactly had happened in those few days? I disagreed with a pitch where he suggested our lead female character carelessly leave a pot holder on the stove and burn down her apartment. This character being a professional caterer.
When what he said about me was revealed months later (by then, he’d come to respect and rely on me), he apologized for prejudging me because I was a black woman. I told him he was ignorant and clearly had a lot to learn. It was a good talk because he was remorseful and open.
But the point here is,if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’ prejudiced, uninformed “how dare she question my ideas” badmouthing based on solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.
9. On my very first date with my now husband, I climbed into his car and saw baby wipes on the passenger side floor. He said he didn’t have kids; they were just there to clean up messes in the car. I twisted to secure my seatbelt and saw a stuffed animal in the rear window.
I gave him a look. He said, “I promise, I don’t have kids. That’s only there so I don’t get stopped by the police.”
He then told me that when he drove home from work late at night, he was getting stopped by cops constantly because he was a black man in a luxury car and they assumed it was either stolen or he was a drug dealer. When he told a cop friend about this, he told Warren to put a stuffed animal in the rear window because it would change “his profile” to that of a family man and he was much less likely to be stopped.
The point here is,if you’ve never had to mask the fruits of your success with a floppy-eared, stuffed bunny rabbit so you won’t get harassed by the cops on the way home from your gainful employment (or never had a first date start this way), you have white privilege.
10. Six years ago, I started a Facebook page that has grown into a website called Good Black News because I was shocked to find there were no sites dedicated solely to publishing the positive things black people do.
And let me explain here how biased the coverage of mainstream media is in case you don’t already have a clue: As I curate, I can’t tell you how often I have to swap out a story’s photo to make it as positive as the content. Photos published of black folks in mainstream media are very often sullen or angry-looking. Even when it’s a positive story!
I also have to constantly alter headlines to include a person’s name and not have it just be “Black Man Wins Settlement” or “Carnegie Hall Gets 1st Black Board Member” or rephrase it from a subtle subjugator like “ABC taps Viola Davis as Series Lead” to “Viola Davis Lands Lead on ABC Show” as is done for say, Jennifer Aniston or Steven Spielberg.
I also receive a fair amount of highly offensive racist trolling. I don’t even respond. I block and delete ASAP.
The point here is – not having to rewrite stories, headlines, or swap photos while being trolled by racists when all you’re trying to do on a daily basis is promote positivity and share stories of hope and achievement and justice – that is white privilege.
Okay, Jason, there’s more but I’m exhausted. And my kids need dinner. Remembering and reliving many of these moments has been a strain and a drain (and again, this ain’t even the half or the worst of it). But I hope my experiences shed some light for you on how institutional and personal racism have affected the entire life of a friend of yours to whom you’ve only been respectful and kind.
I hope what I’ve shared makes you realize it’s not just strangers but people you know and care for who have suffered and are suffering because we are excluded from the privilege you have to not be judged, questioned, or assaulted in any way because of your race.
As to you “being part of the problem,” trust me, nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. Just like nobody should be mad at me for being black. Or female. Or whatever.
But what is being asked of you is to acknowledge that white privilege does exist and to not only to treat people of races that differ from yours “with respect and humor,” but also to stand up for fair treatment and justice, to not let “jokes” or “off-color” comments by friends, co-workers, or family slide by without challenge, and to continually make an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we may all cherish and respect our unique and special contributions to society as much as we do our common ground.
Lack Of Education Leads To Lost Dreams And Low Income For Many Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Growing up on Long Island, Zachary Linderer was obsessed with science.
He grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, and like many others in the faith, he was homeschooled his whole life. By the time he got to high school, Linderer knew that he wanted to go to college for something in the sciences: physics, oceanography, something in that realm. But he realized at a young age that wasn’t going to be a possibility.
“I knew that it wasn’t going to be encouraged that I get an education,” Linderer says. “My dad told me that he knew people who were into science, and it dragged them right out of the organization, right out of the truth.”
The organization that Linderer is talking about is the Watchtower: the governing organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The view that higher education is spiritually dangerous is very common among Witnesses, and for Linderer, it meant that his parents wouldn’t support him going to college.
Still, he knew that he wanted to study, so he decided to keep his ambitions a secret and figure out a way to attend on his own. Close to high school graduation he let his plans slip to a couple of his Jehovah’s Witness friends. Word got back to his family.
“When they found out, my dad and uncles made fun of me,” Linderer recalls. “It really squashed my hopes. I knew I wasn’t going to get their support, and without their support, it was really obvious to me at the time that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own.”
With only a few credits left before high school graduation, Linderer dropped out. He had no prospects of education beyond high school, so getting the diploma seemed pointless. He struggled to find work after moving out of his parents’ home, which eventually led him to get certified as an electrician. Still, that longing to study science haunted him.
“I think I had that feeling at 17 years old or so that that was what I wanted to be, what I needed to be,” Linderer says. “There’s been this hole ever since then.”
From the top down
Linderer’s story is a common one for children raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Pew Research shows that only 9 percent of Witnesses get undergraduate degrees. That’s well below the national average of 30.4 percent and the lowest of any faith group. The likely reason for this trend is the religion’s official warnings against college.
Witness leadership declined to speak to NPR for this story, but Anthony Morris III, a member of the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, outlines the organization’s policies clearly in a video on the organization’s website. The Watchtower Organization discourages higher education for two basic reasons.
First, higher education is spiritually dangerous. In the video, Morris warns parents that “the most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous.” He goes on to say that continual association with non-believers in an academic setting can “erode thinking and convictions.”
Witness leadership also discourages higher education because they believe it’s a waste of time. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been predicting the end of the world since the religion’s founding at the end of the 19th century. By their rationale, time in college would be better spent out on the streets, converting persons to become Witnesses.
Morris makes it very clear that the Watchtower organization doesn’t discourage education, but rather secular education.
“If parents and young ones are motivated to pursue divine education,” Morris says, “the quest for higher secular education becomes less and less of an issue.”
More material problems
The lack of higher education can translate into more tangible problems for Witnesses. Pew research also shows that Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the lowest earners of any religious group.
Amber McGee falls in that category. She grew up a Witness in rural Texas. Like Linderer, she was home-schooled from a young age. Her parents wanted to protect her and her siblings from worldly influences. That decision wasn’t easy on her family.
“My mom, who was supposed to be our home school teacher, was not capable of doing it, emotionally mentally,” McGee recalls. “She had three young children. She was by herself, very far from family, and even grocery stores and that sort of thing.”
McGee’s mother never finished high school herself, and the pressure of trying to teach three children was too much for her. She gave up on homeschooling them when McGee and her twin were in third grade. The kids were forced to fend for themselves using workbooks. When she had trouble with a subject, McGee says she’d just pass her work off to her twin, and vice-versa. This left both of them with significant learning disabilities.
McGee says that when she got excited about a subject, her mother would often shut her down. “I told her how much I found history fun,” McGee says. “She told me, ‘Well, that’s not important because it doesn’t have any bearing on your future, and it won’t be any use in the paradise.” This “paradise” refers to the heaven on earth that Witnesses believe is coming after the end of the world.
McGee barely graduated high school. In mathematics, she never made it past the seventh grade level. That’s made life difficult for McGee. She’s now 34 years old, and the most she’s made in a year is about $14,000.
McGee and her family left the Witnesses about a year ago. They’re doing better now financially, but it’s still far from what McGee had hoped for her life. She had wanted to be nurse growing up, but with no support from her parents and very little education, she didn’t feel it was possible. Today, she struggles with that same feeling that Linderer talked about: the feeling of being robbed of something. It’s a sentiment shared by most of the more than 100 ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses that I heard from while reporting this story.
Still, McGee says she isn’t letting that feeling stop her from retaking her life.
“I was taught very, very young to stop dreaming, to not have dreams,” McGee says, “that you’ll never be a famous person or a doctor or a nurse. It’s not possible. So now, as an adult, at 34 years old, I’m learning to start dreaming again.”
Even if it’s too late for some of her dreams, she definitely hopes to pass them on to her children.
A trove of internal documents reviewed by ProPublica sheds new light on the secret guidelines that Facebook’s censors use to distinguish between hate speech and legitimate political expression. The documents reveal the rationale behind seemingly inconsistent decisions. For instance, Higgins’ incitement to violence passed muster because it targeted a specific sub-group of Muslims — those that are “radicalized” — while Delgado’s post was deleted for attacking whites in general.
Over the past decade, the company has developed hundreds of rules, drawing elaborate distinctions between what should and shouldn’t be allowed, in an effort to make the site a safe place for its nearly 2 billion users. The issue of how Facebook monitors this content has become increasingly prominent in recent months, with the rise of “fake news” — fabricated stories that circulated on Facebook like “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump For President, Releases Statement” — and growing concern that terrorists are using social media for recruitment.
While Facebook was credited during the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring” with facilitating uprisings against authoritarian regimes, the documents suggest that, at least in some instances, the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.
One Facebook rule, which is cited in the documents but that the company said is no longer in effect, banned posts that praise the use of “violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state.” The company’s workforce of human censors, known as content reviewers, has deleted posts by activists and journalists in disputed territories such as Palestine, Kashmir, Crimea and Western Sahara.
One document trains content reviewers on how to apply the company’s global hate speech algorithm. The slide identifies three groups: female drivers, black children and white men. It asks: Which group is protected from hate speech? The correct answer: white men.
The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at “protected categories”—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about “subsets” of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected. (The exact rules are in the slide show below.)
The Facebook Rules
Facebook has used these rules to train its “content reviewers” to decide whether to delete or allow posts. Facebook says the exact wording of its rules may have changed slightly in more recent versions. ProPublica recreated the slides.
Behind this seemingly arcane distinction lies a broader philosophy. Unlike American law, which permits preferences such as affirmative action for racial minorities and women for the sake of diversity or redressing discrimination, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to defend all races and genders equally.
“Sadly,” the rules are “incorporating this color-blindness idea which is not in the spirit of why we have equal protection,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and expert on information privacy at the University of Maryland. This approach, she added, will “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”
But Facebook says its goal is different — to apply consistent standards worldwide. “The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,” said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. “That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.”
Facebook’s rules constitute a legal world of their own. They stand in sharp contrast to the United States’ First Amendment protections of free speech, which courts have interpreted to allow exactly the sort of speech and writing censored by the company’s hate speech algorithm. But they also differ — for example, in permitting postings that deny the Holocaust — from more restrictive European standards.
The company has long had programs to remove obviously offensive material like child pornography from its stream of images and commentary. Recent articles in the Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung have detailed the difficult choices that Facebook faces regarding whether to delete posts containing graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation.
The challenge of policing political expression is even more complex. The documents reviewed by ProPublica indicate, for example, that Donald Trump’s posts about his campaign proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the United States violated the company’s written policies against “calls for exclusion” of a protected group. As The Wall Street Journal reported last year, Facebook exempted Trump’s statements from its policies at the order of Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and chief executive.
The company recently pledged to nearly double its army of censors to 7,500, up from 4,500, in response to criticism of a video posting of a murder. Their work amounts to what may well be the most far-reaching global censorship operation in history. It is also the least accountable: Facebook does not publish the rules it uses to determine what content to allow and what to delete.
Users whose posts are removed are not usually told what rule they have broken, and they cannot generally appeal Facebook’s decision. Appeals are currently only available to people whose profile, group or page is removed.
The company has begun exploring adding an appeals process for people who have individual pieces of content deleted, according to Bickert. “I’ll be the first to say that we’re not perfect every time,” she said.
Facebook is not required by U.S. law to censor content. A 1996 federal law gave most tech companies, including Facebook, legal immunity for the content users post on their services. The law, section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, was passed after Prodigy was sued and held liable for defamation for a post written by a user on a computer message board.
The law freed up online publishers to host online forums without having to legally vet each piece of content before posting it, the way that a news outlet would evaluate an article before publishing it. But early tech companies soon realized that they still needed to supervise their chat rooms to prevent bullying and abuse that could drive away users.
America Online convinced thousands of volunteers to police its chat rooms in exchange for free access to its service. But as more of the world connected to the internet, the job of policing became more difficult and companies started hiring workers to focus on it exclusively. Thus the job of content moderator — now often called content reviewer — was born.
In 2004, attorney Nicole Wong joined Google and persuaded the company to hire its first-ever team of reviewers, who responded to complaints and reported to the legal department. Google needed “a rational set of policies and people who were trained to handle requests,” for its online forum called Groups, she said.
Google’s purchase of YouTube in 2006 made deciding what content was appropriate even more urgent. “Because it was visual, it was universal,” Wong said.
While Google wanted to be as permissive as possible, she said, it soon had to contend with controversies such as a video mocking the King of Thailand, which violated Thailand’s laws against insulting the king. Wong visited Thailand and was impressed by the nation’s reverence for its monarch, so she reluctantly agreed to block the video — but only for computers located in Thailand.
Since then, selectively banning content by geography — called “geo-blocking” — has become a more common request from governments. “I don’t love traveling this road of geo-blocking,” Wong said, but “it’s ended up being a decision that allows companies like Google to operate in a lot of different places.”
For social networks like Facebook, however, geo-blocking is difficult because of the way posts are shared with friends across national boundaries. If Facebook geo-blocks a user’s post, it would only appear in the news feeds of friends who live in countries where the geo-blocking prohibition doesn’t apply. That can make international conversations frustrating, with bits of the exchange hidden from some participants.
As a result, Facebook has long tried to avoid using geography-specific rules when possible, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking. However, it does geo-block in some instances, such as when it complied with a request from France to restrict access within its borders to a photo taken after the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Bickert said Facebook takes into consideration the laws in countries where it operates, but doesn’t always remove content at a government’s request. “If there is something that violates a country’s law but does not violate our standards,” Bickert said, “we look at who is making that request: Is it the appropriate authority? Then we check to see if it actually violates the law. Sometimes we will make that content unavailable in that country only.”
Facebook’s goal is to create global rules. “We want to make sure that people are able to communicate in a borderless way,” Bickert said.
Founded in 2004, Facebook began as a social network for college students. As it spread beyond campus, Facebook began to use content moderation as a way to compete with the other leading social network of that era, MySpace.
MySpace had positioned itself as the nightclub of the social networking world, offering profile pages that users could decorate with online glitter, colorful layouts and streaming music. It didn’t require members to provide their real names and was home to plenty of nude and scantily clad photographs. And it was being investigated by law-enforcement agents across the country who worried it was being used by sexual predators to prey on children. (In a settlement with 49 state attorneys general, MySpace later agreed to strengthen protections for younger users.)
By comparison, Facebook was the buttoned-down Ivy League social network — all cool grays and blues. Real names and university affiliations were required. Chris Kelly, who joined Facebook in 2005 and was its first general counsel, said he wanted to make sure Facebook didn’t end up in law enforcement’s crosshairs, like MySpace.
“We were really aggressive about saying we are a no-nudity platform,” he said.
The company also began to tackle hate speech. “We drew some difficult lines while I was there — Holocaust denial being the most prominent,” Kelly said. After an internal debate, the company decided to allow Holocaust denials but reaffirmed its ban on group-based bias, which included anti-Semitism. Since Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism frequently went together, he said, the perpetrators were often suspended regardless.
“I’ve always been a pragmatist on this stuff,” said Kelly, who left Facebook in 2010. “Even if you take the most extreme First Amendment positions, there are still limits on speech.”
By 2008, the company had begun expanding internationally but its censorship rulebook was still just a single page with a list of material to be excised, such as images of nudity and Hitler. “At the bottom of the page it said, ‘Take down anything else that makes you feel uncomfortable,’” said Dave Willner, who joined Facebook’s content team that year.
Willner, who reviewed about 15,000 photos a day, soon found the rules were not rigorous enough. He and some colleagues worked to develop a coherent philosophy underpinning the rules, while refining the rules themselves. Soon he was promoted to head the content policy team.
By the time he left Facebook in 2013, Willner had shepherded a 15,000-word rulebook that remains the basis for many of Facebook’s content standards today.
“There is no path that makes people happy,” Willner said. “All the rules are mildly upsetting.” Because of the volume of decisions — many millions per day — the approach is “more utilitarian than we are used to in our justice system,” he said. “It’s fundamentally not rights-oriented.”
Willner’s then-boss, Jud Hoffman, who has since left Facebook, said that the rules were based on Facebook’s mission of “making the world more open and connected.” Openness implies a bias toward allowing people to write or post what they want, he said.
Eventually, however, Hoffman said “we found that limiting it to physical harm wasn’t sufficient, so we started exploring how free expression societies deal with this.”
The rules developed considerable nuance. There is a ban against pictures of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character often used by “alt-right” white supremacists to perpetrate racist memes, but swastikas are allowed under a rule that permits the “display [of] hate symbols for political messaging.” In the documents examined by ProPublica, which are used to train content reviewers, this rule is illustrated with a picture of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that has been manipulated to apply a swastika to his sleeve.
The documents state that Facebook relies, in part, on the U.S. State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations, which includes groups such as al-Qaida, the Taliban and Boko Haram. But not all groups deemed terrorist by one country or another are included: A recent investigation by the Pakistan newspaper Dawn found that 41 of the 64 terrorist groups banned in Pakistan were operational on Facebook.
There is also a secret list, referred to but not included in the documents, of groups designated as hate organizations that are banned from Facebook. That list apparently doesn’t include many Holocaust denial and white supremacist sites that are up on Facebook to this day, such as a group called “Alt-Reich Nation.” A member of that group was recently charged with murdering a black college student in Maryland.
As the rules have multiplied, so have exceptions to them. Facebook’s decision not to protect subsets of protected groups arose because some subgroups such as “female drivers” didn’t seem especially sensitive. The default position was to allow free speech, according to a person familiar with the decision-making.
After the wave of Syrian immigrants began arriving in Europe, Facebook added a special “quasi-protected” category for migrants, according to the documents. They are only protected against calls for violence and dehumanizing generalizations, but not against calls for exclusion and degrading generalizations that are not dehumanizing. So, according to one document, migrants can be referred to as “filthy” but not called “filth.” They cannot be likened to filth or disease “when the comparison is in the noun form,” the document explains.
Facebook also added an exception to its ban against advocating for anyone to be sent to a concentration camp. “Nazis should be sent to a concentration camp,” is allowed, the documents state, because Nazis themselves are a hate group.
The rule against posts that support violent resistance against a foreign occupier was developed because “we didn’t want to be in a position of deciding who is a freedom fighter,” Willner said. Facebook has since dropped the provision and revised its definition of terrorism to include nongovernmental organizations that carry out premeditated violence “to achieve a political, religious or ideological aim,” according to a person familiar with the rules.
The Facebook policy appears to have had repercussions in many of the at least two dozen disputed territories around the world. When Russia occupied Crimea in March 2014, many Ukrainians experienced a surge in Facebook banning posts and suspending profiles. Facebook’s director of policy for the region, Thomas Myrup Kristensen, acknowledged at the time that it “found a small number of accounts where we had incorrectly removed content. In each case, this was due to language that appeared to be hate speech but was being used in an ironic way. In these cases, we have restored the content.”
Katerina Zolotareva, 34, a Kiev-based Ukrainian working in communications, has been blocked so often that she runs four accounts under her name. Although she supported the “Euromaidan” protests in February 2014 that antagonized Russia, spurring its military intervention in Crimea, she doesn’t believe that Facebook took sides in the conflict. “There is war in almost every field of Ukrainian life,” she says, “and when war starts, it also starts on Facebook.”
In Western Sahara, a disputed territory occupied by Morocco, a group of journalists called Equipe Media say their account was disabled by Facebook, their primary way to reach the outside world. They had to open a new account, which remains active.
“We feel we have never posted anything against any law,” said Mohammed Mayarah, the group’s general coordinator. “We are a group of media activists. We have the aim to break the Moroccan media blockade imposed since it invaded and occupied Western Sahara.”
In Israel, which captured territory from its neighbors in a 1967 war and has occupied it since, Palestinian groups are blocked so often that they have their own hashtag, #FbCensorsPalestine, for it. Last year, for instance, Facebook blocked the accounts of several editors for two leading Palestinian media outlets from the West Bank — Quds News Network and Sheebab News Agency. After a couple of days, Facebook apologized and un-blocked the journalists’ accounts. Earlier this year, Facebook blocked the account of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party — then un-blocked it and apologized.
Last year India cracked down on protesters in Kashmir, shooting pellet guns at them and shutting off cellphone service. Local insurgents are seeking autonomy for Kashmir, which is also caught in a territorial tussle between India and Pakistan. Posts of Kashmir activists were being deleted, and members of a group called the Kashmir Solidarity Network found that all of their Facebook accounts had been blocked on the same day.
Ather Zia, a member of the network and a professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, said that Facebook restored her account without explanation after two weeks. “We do not trust Facebook any more,” she said. “I use Facebook, but it’s almost this idea that we will be able to create awareness but then we might not be on it for long.”
The rules are one thing. How they’re applied is another. Bickert said Facebook conducts weekly audits of every single content reviewer’s work to ensure that its rules are being followed consistently. But critics say that reviewers, who have to decide on each post within seconds, may vary in both interpretation and vigilance.
Facebook users who don’t mince words in criticizing racism and police killings of racial minorities say that their posts are often taken down. Two years ago, Stacey Patton, a journalism professor at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore, posed a provocative question on her Facebook page. She asked why “it’s not a crime when White freelance vigilantes and agents of ‘the state’ are serial killers of unarmed Black people, but when Black people kill each other then we are ‘animals’ or ‘criminals.’”
Although it doesn’t appear to violate Facebook’s policies against hate speech, her post was immediately removed, and her account was disabled for three days. Facebook didn’t tell her why. “My posts get deleted about once a month,” said Patton, who often writes about racial issues. She said she also is frequently put in Facebook “jail” — locked out of her account for a period of time after a posting that breaks the rules.
“It’s such emotional violence,” Patton said. “Particularly as a black person, we’re always having these discussions about mass incarceration, and then here’s this fiber-optic space where you can express yourself. Then you say something that some anonymous person doesn’t like and then you’re in ‘jail.’”
Didi Delgado, whose post stating that “white people are racist” was deleted, has been banned from Facebook so often that she has set up an account on another service called Patreon, where she posts the content that Facebook suppressed. In May, she deplored the increasingly common Facebook censorship of black activists in an article for Medium titled “Mark Zuckerberg Hates Black People.”
Facebook also locked out Leslie Mac, a Michigan resident who runs a service called SafetyPinBox where subscribers contribute financially to “the fight for black liberation,” according to her site. Her offense was writing a post stating “White folks. When racism happens in public — YOUR SILENCE IS VIOLENCE.”
The post does not appear to violate Facebook’s policies. Facebook apologized and restored her account after TechCrunch wrote an article about Mac’s punishment. Since then, Mac has written many other outspoken posts. But, “I have not had a single peep from Facebook,” she said, while “not a single one of my black female friends who write about race or social justice have not been banned.”
“My takeaway from the whole thing is: If you get publicity, they clean it right up,” Mac said. Even so, like most of her friends, she maintains a separate Facebook account in case her main account gets blocked again.
Negative publicity has spurred other Facebook turnabouts as well. Consider the example of the iconic news photograph of a young naked girl running from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War. Kate Klonick, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale Law School who has spent two years studying censorship operations at tech companies, said the photo had likely been deleted by Facebook thousands of times for violating its ban on nudity.
But last year, Facebook reversed itself after Norway’s leading newspaper published a front-page open letter to Zuckerberg accusing him of “abusing his power” by deleting the photo from the newspaper’s Facebook account.
Klonick said that while she admires Facebook’s dedication to policing content on its website, she fears it is evolving into a place where celebrities, world leaders and other important people “are disproportionately the people who have the power to update the rules.”
In December 2015, a month after terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people, the European Union began pressuring tech companies to work harder to prevent the spread of violent extremism online.
After a year of negotiations, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube agreed to the European Union’s hate speech code of conduct, which commits them to review and remove the majority of valid complaints about illegal content within 24 hours and to be audited by European regulators. The first audit, in December, found that the companies were only reviewing 40 percent of hate speech within 24 hours, and only removing 28 percent of it. Since then, the tech companies have shortened their response times to reports of hate speech and increased the amount of content they are deleting, prompting criticism from free-speech advocates that too much is being censored.
Now the German government is considering legislation that would allow social networks such as Facebook to be fined up to 50 million euros if they don’t remove hate speech and fake news quickly enough. Facebook recently posted an article assuring German lawmakers that it is deleting about 15,000 hate speech posts a month. Worldwide, over the last two months, Facebook deleted about 66,000 hate speech posts per week, vice president Richard Allan said in a statement Tuesday on the company’s site.
Among posts that Facebook didn’t delete were Donald Trump’s comments on Muslims. Days after the Paris attacks, Trump, then running for president, posted on Facebook “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Candidate Trump’s posting — which has come back to haunt him in court decisions voiding his proposed travel ban — appeared to violate Facebook’s rules against “calls for exclusion” of a protected religious group. Zuckerberg decided to allow it because it was part of the political discourse, according to people familiar with the situation.
However, one person close to Facebook’s decision-making said Trump may also have benefited from the exception for sub-groups. A Muslim ban could be interpreted as being directed against a sub-group, Muslim immigrants, and thus might not qualify as hate speech against a protected category.