Incident 275: Facebook’s Content Moderation Algorithm Incorrectly Banned Users for a Photo of Aboriginal Men in Chains as Historical Evidence of Slavery

Description: Facebook’s automated content moderation was acknowledged by a company spokesperson to have erroneously censored and banned Australian users from posting an article containing a 1890s photo of Aboriginal men in chains over nudity as historical evidence of slavery in Australia.
Alleged: Facebook developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed Facebook users sharing photo evidence of slavery and Facebook users.

Suggested citation format

Giallella, Thomas. (2020-06-11) Incident Number 275. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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Facebook has removed a photo of aboriginal men used to prove racism in Australia, after claiming the photo included nudity.

The picture was shared online to prove racism had taken place in Australia off the back of the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, saying there had been no slavery there.

In the picture deemed inappropriate, nine aboriginal men can be seen wearing loin cloths and chains around their necks, while three fully clothed white men, one of whom is holding a large gun, stand by.

In a radio interview on Thursday, June 11, Morrison was asked about the removal of statues following Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulling down the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston.

Speaking about Australia’s history, Morrison said:

Australia when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, was on the basis that there’d be no slavery. And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement.

My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.

Following the bold statement from the Australian prime minister, someone shared the photo of the aboriginal men in the late 1800s online, but it was later removed by Facebook due to ‘nudity’, The Guardian reports.

Those who tried to share the image were greeted with the message stating the post went against Facebook’s Community Standards due to it containing nudity or sexual activity.

The photograph has since been restored however, with Facebook apologising for its removal. A spokesperson from the social media site explained it must have been removed ‘by the automated system in error’.

Morrison has since acknowledged there were ‘hideous practices’ in Australia’s history when asked if he considered ‘blackbirding’ as slavery. Blackbirding was the practice of kidnapping Pacific Islanders and using them as forced labour, in particular on sugar and cotton plantations in Australia.

Answering the question, Morrsion said, ‘There have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place, and so I’m not denying any of that’, as The Guardian reports.

Following the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the globe, including in Australia, America and the UK, it’s evident institutional racism is still taking place and is keenly felt in these countries, as well as elsewhere.

Facebook Removes Photo Of Aboriginal Men Used To Prove Racism In Australia

The post was made in the context of Australian prime minister Scott Morrison claiming there was no slavery in Australia. Before a day later, he backed up on those comments.

What was is about?

A Facebook user had posted a refutation of the assertion by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Australia had never had slavery - comments that he retracted a day later. The user's post featured an 1890s photo depicting Aboriginal men in chains.

Facebook deleted the post and limited the account of the man, saying the photo contained nudity and violated community standards on the site, the Guardian wrote.

Guardian Australia announced on Saturday, June 13, that Facebook apologized for stopping an Australian user from posting the picture from the 1890s incorrectly.

The post was restored after Facebook asked Guardian Australia whether the photo had been flagged in error. Facebook apologized to the user late Friday and had the post restored.

A spokeswoman for the company said the removal was the result of an automated process and was an error.

"We apologize for this mistake," she told The Guardian.

Yet dozens of other Facebook users reported the same problems when attempting to repost a link to the article in the Guardian. Some were even banned for trying to share it for up to 30 days, the Guardian reported.

Among those who couldn't share the news article was the man who first posted the image to his profile on his Twitter account.

I just tried to post this article, it immediately blocked the post, gave me no chance to appeal or dispute, case closed and put my account on restricted use for 24hours. If you look at my “history of not following standards.” It’s just this incident shown twice — Hacklock - The Console Cowboy of Cyberspace (@hacklocked) June 15, 2020

Facebook appeared to allow the article to be posted on Monday afternoon, June 15, after more requests from Guardian Australia. Usually, Facebook allows users to request a sample of any takedowns. It has restored 613,000 pieces of content after 2.1 m requests for review between January and March.

Many users reported having been told that Facebook has fewer workers to review takedowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are "trying to prioritize content review with the greatest potential for damage." On Monday, the social media company appeared to have permitted the sharing of the article without restriction or ban.


Several people pointed to the disparity between Facebook's quick and inaccurate censoring content, which deemed to contain nudity and reluctance to take down inflammatory posts. Journalist and activist Cory Doctorow said the incident on Twitter demonstrated that Facebook was unable to regulate on the scale and that automated censorship was not equitably distributed, with some minority groups being more likely to censor their discussions.

And the fallout from this overblocking is not evenly distributed. Not only are some disfavored minorities (sex workers, queer people, people of color) more likely to have their discussions censored. 21/ — Cory Doctorow #BLM (@doctorow) June 13, 2020

Doctorow claimed that Facebook should not be granted additional duties in censoring content, as others have called for over Trump's posts on Twitter and Facebook in recent weeks. Instead, he said, Facebook should be reduced to a "size, to a scale where communities can set and enforce norms."

"Because the problem with [Facebook] isn't merely that [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg is uniquely unsuited to making decisions about the social lives and political discourse of 2.6 billion people ... it's that NO ONE is capable of doing that job. That job should not exist."

Facebook Blocks, Bans Users for Sharing Article Showing Aboriginal Men in Chains Over Nudity

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