Last week, Facebook repeatedly blocked a rather boilerplate quote from the Christian church father St. Augustine of Hippo. PJ Media’s John Ellis reported the story. When PJ Media reader Lynn Epstein went to share it, her post was blocked. When she appealed the block, Facebook suspended her for 30 days, claiming she had posted “hate speech.”
Epstein posted the link to Ellis’s story with this message, “Pulled from one of St. Augustine’s homilies included in the Roman Catholic Church’s official liturgical books, THE OFFENDING QUOTE IS THIS:
Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.
Facebook blocked the post, claiming it went against the company’s “Community Standards.” Epstein contested the ban, and then Facebook reviewed it. After the review, a staffer insisted again that the post violated the “Community Standards.”
As an explanation, the social media company pointed to its policy against “hate speech.”
“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence,” the Community Standards explain. “We define hate speech as a direct attack on people used on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status.”
“We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation,” the policy continues. “We separate attacks into three tiers of severity, as described below.”
Yet it seems Facebook refused to describe exactly how the St. Augustine quote or PJ Media’s article reporting on the ban involved any “direct attack” on protected characteristics. Perhaps the isolated statement “But men are hopeless creatures” could be interpreted as a suggestion that males — a protected class — are “hopeless.” In context, however, Augustine was clearly referring to all humanity, including himself.
After all, the passage begins with Augustine guiding other Christians, urging them and himself not to “assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin.” This teaches the simple Christian doctrine that people cannot earn their way to heaven with good deeds. Instead, humans must trust in the saving Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The statement that “men are hopeless creatures” is not an attack on anyone in particular, and it is the very opposite of encouraging Christians to think of themselves was better than other people. The whole point of God’s grace is that Christians are no better than others — “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Yet not only did Facebook insist that this post — or the news article reporting on the ban — is “hate speech,” but it also suspended Epstein’s account. When she went to post again, she received this message: “You can’t post right now. You may have used Facebook in a way that a our systems consider unusual, even if you didn’t mean to. You can post again in 29 days.”
This harsh response suggests that Facebook may have other reasons for going after Epstein. Perhaps the company does not just consider the St. Augustine quote “hate speech” — perhaps it considers the PJ Media report on the ban a form of “hate speech.”
Social media companies continue to block and ban users without giving a true explanation of how their messages violate the vague “Community Standards.” In one case, a transgender activist who claims a close connection to the CEO of Twitter bragged about getting a feminist journalist permanently suspended from Twitter over her criticism of his transgender activism.
Facebook has to explain how St. Augustine is “hate speech,” and it seems the company must explain whether it thinks PJ Media’s reporting about its ridiculous bans is also “hate speech.” If news is “hate speech,” Facebook has fallen quite far indeed.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.