A Facebook group dedicated to gardening in western New York state is celebrating a victory over the company's algorithms after having been repeatedly threatened with censure and deletion due to use of the word "hoe".
According to Elizabeth Licata, a moderator for the 7,700-member WNY Gardeners group, posts which referred to the handy implement were being flagged by Facebook algorithms as "violating community standards."
The hoe is an ancient device dating back at least to the Neolithic period. Facebook dates back to 2004.
The AI was apparently under the misapprehension that the Empire State horticulturalists were referring to a similar-sounding offensive slang term for a prostitute (mostly aimed at women) and is usually spelled without the "e" at the end. You could nevertheless argue that the two words are... *ahem* hoemonyms.
Facebook's somewhat scattershot community monitoring algos will usually flag and delete posts containing material they consider offensive, although the processes they use to arrive at these decisions are opaque, and difficult – if not impossible – to reverse, even if they are obviously mistaken.
Worse still, if a community's members and moderators post too much material that the algorithms deem to be inappropriate, the entire group can be arbitrarily shut down, with little chance of appeal or redress.
This obviously left the group's moderators, including Licata, in a difficult situation. The pandemic increased the group's popularity and "hoe" is a perfectly normal word in a gardening context, so Facebook's "gung-ho" approach to content moderation looked like it might lead to the end of WNY Gardeners on the platform.
Licata said she tried to contact the social media company to explain her group's situation but, like many group moderators before her, found that its contact section is seemingly hermetically sealed, making it almost impossible to actually talk to a human being. She added that trying to navigate Facebook's blizzard of tools and settings was simply a waste of time.
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"I said this is a gardening group, a hoe is gardening tool," Licata told The Associated Press. "I contacted Facebook, which was useless. How do you do that?"
The Mark Zuckerberg-led social panopticon is renowned for its bafflingly inconsistent application of first amendment free speech rights, with algorithms blindly marking out normal terms as hate speech or against community standards – including cases when the site came out against the Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe and the Devon landmark Plymouth Hoe – while appearing unbothered by holocaust denial and far-right activity.
Fortunately in this case, Facebook did eventually respond to the WNY Gardeners' concerns, but only after having the matter flagged to it by AP's enquiries related to the story.
An email from a Facebook representative promised that mistaken takedowns and warnings threatened due to references to the tool would be reversed, and any future flags attached to the group's posts arising from hoe-related matters would be checked by a human moderator before action is taken.
"We have plans to build out better customer support for our products and to provide the public with even more information about our policies and how we enforce them," the spokesperson was quoted as saying.
So Facebook is listening to your concerns, is always willing to admit when it has made a mistake, is amenable to change and always looking to improve its services, just so long as you can call on a global news agency to ask your questions for you.
I think there is a message there for us all. ®