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Facebook working to combat cyber-bullying — but when does free speech become hate speech?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010
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Facebook is teaming up with Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD), The Trevor Project and others to form a new “Network of Support” to help combat bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens.

Anti-gay bullying has been in the headlines recently following the suicides of several gay teenagers in September. Earlier this month, several Facebook users began organizing a “spirit” day, encouraging others to wear purple on Wednesday, October 20 to raise awareness of anti-gay bullying, and to honor the teens who killed themselves.

But when internet bullies flooded the event page with violent images, hateful comments and gay slurs, GLAAD reached out to Facebook to take action.

Along with its “Network of Support,” Facebook has implemented new measures to respond more quickly to hate speech postings and troll activity.

Facebook is committed to fostering a safe and trusted environment that gives people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints. But sometimes, just like in the offline world, people can say offensive or even hateful things online. Hateful comments violate Facebook’s policies … But it’s not just about removing bad content, it’s also about preventing it.” — Facebook.

And while Facebook said that its policies prohibit hateful content and that it has systems in place to take down such posts as soon as possible, the company also said it wants its users to be able to express unpopular opinions and as such must strike a careful balance between removing harmful content and letting people speak freely.

One example of striking that balance is this recent Facebook thread in which several students from El Reno High School in El Reno, OK, exchanged opinions related to Wednesday’s “Spirit” day.

(Click the image to the left to view the full-size image.)

The thread began with one student mentioning that he wasn’t going to support “the gay pride thing on Wednesday,” which was followed by his opinion that being gay was “a choice.”

But did the student cross the line from free expression when he posted that gay people “have to put up with being bullied,” to which another user responded “If you want to be gay then suffer the punishments”?

While the student’s comments were not particularly graphic in nature or directed at any one specific individual, they are indicative of anti-gay bias that has fueled bullying and harassment of LGBT youth — and imply that “punishment” is justified, and encouraged.

In the recent suicide deaths of Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Zach Harrington, Cody Barker, Raymond Chase and others, family members indicated the teens were all subjected to years of bullying and anti-gay bias because of their actual, or perceived sexual orientation.

And last month, GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, announced that its 2009 survey of 7,261 middle and high school students found that at school nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

As part of its Network of Support, Facebook put together these suggestions for LGBT teens, and anyone else interested in online safety: block bullies, report harassment, stick up for each other, think twice before posting, reach out whenever you feel overwhelmed, and remember that you are not alone in your struggle.

But the real question for Facebook — when does free speech become hate speech?

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