Opinion: The tale of Turtleboy and how Facebook stifles free speech

Aidan Kearney wants you to know why Facebook is too powerful, too dumb and — most of all — too cheap for the world’s good.

And his story begins with a murdered police officer, Sean Gannon of Yarmouth, Mass., shot just last month, allegedly by a perp with more than 100 priors.

Kearney, a 36-year-old former schoolteacher, owns Turtleboy Sports, a cultish Worcester, Mass.-based blog of Patriots worship, investigative reporting about Massachusetts miscreants (as Kearney and his stable of pen-named Turtle Riders see them) and smiting of Social Justice Warriors, dumb criminals, bad parents and Black Lives Matter supporters.

Kearney’s latest of many Facebook
 crimes was a picture of a Yarmouth police badge, a memorial to Gannon. Which to an anonymous complainer, and Facebook, was a “violation of community standards” that got Turtleboy’s latest Facebook page deleted from the world’s largest social network on May 14. He’s been kicked off Facebook at least 50 times in the past three-plus years — all of the suspensions, he says, apparently unsupervised by human beings.

Public square

“Facebook is the public square,” Kearney says. “When they deny access to users without cause, it’s a threat to all media pages, users and democracy. Facebook’s arbitrary content moderation and lack of oversight can result in any page being banned from the free exchange of ideas.”

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Which leads to, among other things, nonsense like this when would-be totalitarians use Facebook to stop speech they don’t like, and Facebook, like a sap, lets them.

(Facebook’s response, via a spokeswoman who asked not to be named, is that the deletion was about the overall tone of the page. The notice, however, clearly cites the specific post.)

Kearney’s story is one way we know Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t tell Congress the whole truth when he claimed artificial intelligence would soon be the key to screening hate speech, obscenity, election manipulation and other detritus from Facebook — but that, for now, much of the problem was intractable. Facebook told the same tale to European Union officials in testimony Tuesday. Belgian legislator Guy Verhofstadt said Zuckerberg might be remembered as “a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies.”

AI failures

Kearney says the real problem is that Facebook doesn’t want to pay human beings to deal with even simple complaints. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) can’t do remotely what Zuckerberg says it soon will.

That leaves the media world with the Facebook it likes least: Unaccountable, powerful and weirdly passive in the face of political manipulation by, in this case, loosely affiliated folks who, having in many cases been roasted by Turtleboy, choose (to quote one of their Facebook chats about it) to “report [freaking] everything.”

“One of the pieces of criticism we get that I think is fair is we’re much better able to enforce our nudity policies, for example, than we are hate speech,” Zuckerberg said on an April conference call with analysts. “The reason for that is it’s much easier to make an AI system that can detect a nipple than it is to determine what is linguistically hate speech.”

In fact, Facebook can’t do either. That has real-world consequences that have cost Kearney — the kind of cottage entrepreneur that the internet theoretically empowers — hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Supreme gadfly

Lots of people don’t like Kearney’s blog, or Kearney. He talks fast, is free with name-calling, and he’s so Boston that he named his son after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. And, scandalizing his family, he enjoys attention enough to have turned many, many cartwheels at his sister’s christening when he was six. In church! This I know because he’s my nephew, I was there, and he’s changed very little. He milks things.

You can like Kearney’s politics or not — his blog praised Bernie Sanders in early 2016, then switched to Donald Trump, seeing both as more populist than Hillary Clinton. Its obsession with Black Lives Matter and Social Justice Warriors flirts, heavily, with lines of polite conversation, both when Kearney writes and when the blog’s conversation is driven, he says, by his freelancers.

But he’s parlayed his site into 112,000 followers on Facebook at the peak, and a local notoriety that occasionally spills into his making national news — as when his reporting helped lead to the resignation of Massachusetts State Police commanders who ordered officers to change the arrest report for a judge’s daughter who had said she performed sexual favors to get heroin.

Turtleboy is real speech and, often enough, capital-J Journalism. And Facebook is where Kearney’s audience finds him. Or wants to.

Kearney isn’t an especially political person, and Turtleboy isn’t an especially partisan site. His complaint with Facebook isn’t that of Ted Cruz, whining that Facebook is biased against airheaded pseudo-conservatives like Diamond and Silk. To Kearney, Harvard boy Cruz and the down-home, Trump-loving church ladies are both poseurs. His complaint is that big, powerful Facebook is letting itself get pushed around by a handful of people Kearney mostly knows, and whose online and offline peccadilloes have been grist for Turtleboy’s mill for years.

In other words, he’s steamed that his 112,000 followers are being blocked by a few idiots — and that Facebook, out of fear, is enabling the idiots and blaming technology for its own lack of spine.

Facebook’s spokeswoman said the company employs 7,500 people to review content. Yet here are some things a workforce of 7,500 couldn’t figure out while fielding Turtleboy complaints.

Here’s what got Kearney flagged for nudity. Find the nipples.

Here’s the post Facebook cited as a reason to take down Kearney’s flagship page last Nov. 28, the one with 112,000 hard-won followers (twice as many as Worcester’s newspaper) that provided most of his income and traffic.

(To be fair to Facebook, at least this notice can be read as citing the whole page, rather than just the Thanksgiving post. Kearney insists the notice pertained to the post alone.)

This is how easy Kearney’s opponents think it is to manipulate Facebook.

Kearney long ago began trolling to see how stupidly Facebook would react to politically motivated complaints. He gets one page taken down, puts up a page with a name like “Turtleboy Refugees,” and then rivals lobby Facebook to take that down too.

One post was taken down as hate speech, reading “have a nice day.” Another time it was over a message reading, in toto, “peace love and happiness for all’’ — Facebook said this unillustrated message contained nudity.

One page was taken down when there was no content posted to it at all, Kearney says — Facebook insisted, even when he did an automated appeal, that a blank page violated community standards.

But see for yourself.

7,500 Facebook content monitors at Facebook decided this was bullying:

This “celebrates violence”:

And the ever-reviled child pornography:

Perhaps Mr. Zuckerberg is confused by kindness, having encountered so little of it lately.

Or perhaps Facebook’s system doesn’t recognize any of what Zuckerberg is targeting, and its content-screening methods let some users target others’ speech. Zuckerberg blames primitive artificial intelligence. But even The Daily Caller understands this is weak sauce — and the Caller has no intelligence at all.

It’s not as if it can’t afford to do better.

Running Facebook’s service cost about 13 cents on each dollar of its $40.7 billion in 2017 revenue. The company’s recent report on community-standards violations said it took down about 6 million posts per month in 2018’s first quarter for hate speech, adult nudity and sexual content, graphic violence and sexual propaganda, fewer than 1% of all posts. So, 200,000 per day — and other than hate speech, nearly all are caught before users report them, Facebook says.

Hate speech generates about 17,100 user-generated complaints a day worldwide, by the report’s numbers. It’s totally plausible to expect these complaints, which are by their nature political, to get human review and a chance to appeal, given Facebook’s importance to political discussion and making a buck online.

It’s a job 200, maybe 300, people could manage. Their $12 million to $18 million in salary (at $60,000 per person) wouldn’t dent Facebook’s $24 billion in 2017 operating cash flow. After all, were Kearney’s babies showing you their nipples? Would you need all day to figure that out?

Oh, wait. Facebook already has 7,500 people on this. Up 40% in the past year! Yet ProPublica found in a review of 49 disputed posts last December that 22 were misclassified, either leaving so-called hate speech up or taking down speech that followed the rules. Turtleboy’s post about ProPublica’s story was — wait for it — removed. Those 7,500 people must work hard.

Actually, Facebook usually offers neither meaningful review nor appeal, and that’s bad for democracy. It’s that darn, shaky AI, they say. Don’t buy it.

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-tale-of-turtleboy-and-how-facebook-stifles-free-speech-2018-05-24

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