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Facebook’s secret rules of deletion

Facebook refuses to disclose the criteria that deletions are based on. SZ-Magazin has gained access to some of these rules. We show you some excerpts here – and explain them.

Introductory words

These are excerpts of internal documents that explain to content moderators what they need to do. To protect our sources, we have made visual edits to maintain confidentiality. While the rules are constantly changing, these documents provide the first-ever insights into the current guidelines that Facebook applies to delete contents.


According to our sources, the logo on the bottom right – the heart with a globe – is the symbol for the Facebook department that sets the rules of deletion. These rules are then often applied by external service providers, such as the Bertelsmann subsidiary Arvato in Berlin. Employees attend internal training workshops where they learn what should be deleted and what shouldn’t.

This image aims to show why Facebook takes action against hate speech: “because it creates an intimidating and exclusionary environment in which people don’t want to share”. This goes against Facebook’s business model: the company wants to offer people a space in which they will share contents and interact with one another as much as possible – all the while looking at a lot of advertising.


Hate speech not allowed (but only for certain groups of people)

The chapter on hate speech starts with an explanation of the criteria that need to be met for a post to be considered hate speech and deleted: namely, a verbal attack on a “protected category”. Facebook determines these categories itself and they currently include the following:


Religious affiliation

National origin

Gender identity



Sexual orientation

Disability or serious illness

Attacks based on one of these categories are deleted.

There are also sub-categories that enjoy extra protection. These are listed in the same chapter:

Age – youth, senior citizens, teenagers

Employment status: e.g. unemployed, teachers, doctors, pilots, and astronauts

Continent of origin: e.g. European or South American. Here, special risks are listed for the following terms: Asians (protected in the race category); American or Australian (protected in the national origin category)

Social status: e.g. rich, poor, middle class

Appearance: e.g. blonde, brunette, tall, short, fat, skinny

Political affiliation: e.g. Republican, Democrat, socialist, Communist, revolutionary.

Religions such as Islam, Catholicism, and Scientology. The following applies here: while members of religious groups are protected, religion itself is not. The same applies to countries. While speaking badly about France or Germany is allowed in general, condemning people on the basis of their nationality is not.


A number of combinations are possible:

A protected category (PC for short) combined with another protected category results in yet another protected category. Take Irish women, for instance. Here, the “national origins” and “sex” categories apply. So if someone were to write “Irish women are dumb,” they would be breaking the rules and their post would be deleted.

However, combining a protected category with an unprotected category results in an unprotected category. Irish teenagers are the example. While they are protected under the national origin category, the term teenager does not enjoy special protection (the same applies to terms such as “retiree” or “youth”, for instance). For this reason, the sentence “Irish teenagers are dumb” does not need to be deleted.


An overview of sentences that are either allowed or not allowed

This overview at the end of the hate speech chapter illustrates a number of rules. The rules about migrants are especially interesting. For instance, saying “fucking Muslims” is not allowed, as religious affiliation is a protected category. However, the sentence “fucking migrants” is allowed, as migrants are only a quasi protected category” – a special form that was introduced after complaints were made in Germany. This rule states that promoting hate against migrants is allowed under certain circumstances: statements such as “migrants are dirty” are allowed, while “migrants are dirt” isn’t.


Bullying not allowed

Creating a ranking of private individuals based on their physical appearance or personality traits is considered bullying and is not allowed. This rule stipulates that pictures of three women at the beach must be deleted if captions such as “Which one is hotter? Please comment!” appear underneath. If this Facebook guideline were consistently applied, statements that Donald Trump has made rating women’s appearance with sentences like “a small-chested woman has a hard time getting ten out of ten points” could be deleted.


Allowed: self-destructive behavior

None of these pictures have to be deleted. Self-destructive behavior (apparently including tattoos and extreme piercings) can be posted if they are uploaded without a caption and do not encourage people to “try this at home.” According to Facebook, everything is a question of context: images of extreme anorexia (picture on the top right) or a seriously injured child (bottom right) do not break the rules. In the same chapter, there are also disturbing pictures of extreme self harm with open wounds. Such contents must only be deleted if they encourage others to do the same. Otherwise, the pictures stay on the user’s page so that the person’s friends can see the “cry for help”, as the guideline describes. The documents also state that people who post pictures of their own self-harm should be given the contact details of help hotlines.


Public figures

Facebook draws a distinction between public figures and private individuals. Since public figures are less strictly protected, it is interesting to note the criteria with which Facebook has defined public figures. These include:

People who have been elected to public office

People who have more than 100,000 followers on social media

People who are employed by broadcast or news media outlets and make public statements

People who have been mentioned in news reports five times or more in the past two years.


Not allowed: Showing people urinating if the depiction is humiliating

The chapter on bullying also includes rules for dealing with bodily functions. The rules state that “sharing humiliating pictures of people menstruating, urinating, vomiting, or defecating” is not allowed. All of these pictures must be deleted.

Picture captions (from left to right):

“Haha! Looks like he is having some trouble”.

“OMG! You’re an adult. This is disgusting!”

“Someone lend her a pad. Please! Lol!”


An important mechanism of Facebook’s rules of deletion is illustrated by the fact that these pictures shouldn’t be deleted: pictures must only be removed if they appear to be showing a forbidden act – in this case bullying. These pictures are only permissible because they don’t have captions. Whether the woman on the picture on the far right might feel that the image is humiliating is open to debate, as is the idea that the picture could be distributed in a public forum that can’t be controlled.


In keeping with the example of bodily functions, the Facebook guidelines make another important distinction between public figures and private individuals. For famous people (the exact criteria of what constitutes famous will be addressed in detail later on) like Black-Eyed Peas singer Fergie, former One Direction singer Harry Styles or the actor Owen Wilson, different standards apply on Facebook. They can be shown wetting themselves, throwing up, or urinating in public. The following statement can be seen above the examples: “pictures that show public figures urinating, defecating, vomiting, or menstruating should be ignored.”

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