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Facebook and Instagram ban images of Zwarte Piet

Credit: Belga

Photos and videos of someone dressed up as the controversial figure of Zwarte Piet (which translates as Black Pete) are now forbidden on social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, the company reported on Tuesday.

After a nine-month process, Facebook is adapting its policy on discriminatory stereotypes worldwide, American company executives explained during a press briefing on Tuesday. The alternative for Zwarte Piet, ‘Roetpiet’ (Soot Pete, whose face is only streaked with soot), without the blackface features, is still allowed.

The Netherlands and Belgium have a long-standing tradition of celebrating the Winter holiday story of Sinterklaas, who is said to visit children’s homes to bring presents and treats on the evening of 5 (the Netherlands) or 6 (Belgium) December.

As the story goes, Sinterklaas has a helper – Zwarte Piet. Adults and children dress up as him, donning blackface and black curly wigs, painting large red lips, and often large golden earrings. The figure has been at the centre of a lot of controversies, with even American reality star Kim Kardashian commenting on it last year.

“We looked at different perspectives and spoke to more than 60 organisations and experts from around the world, including human rights specialists and activists,” they said. Belgian or Dutch ones, however, were not among them, reports De Morgen.

Users will be able to report the images and videos of Zwarte Piet. In case of faces that have clearly been painted black, combined with other stereotyping features such as a curly wig or large lips, Facebook employees will remove the image or video from the platform.

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An automatic pro-active detection programme using algorithms is not yet in place, and will therefore not be applied.

According to Facebook, blackface – and therefore also Zwarte Piet – falls under discriminating and hurtful stereotyping. “Worldwide, blackface is part of an ongoing history of dehumanisation and denied civil rights,” the company said.

Facebook is aware of the fact that, mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands, not everyone agrees on this approach of Zwarte Piet, but calls it “a principled approach.”

“And if people do not agree, they can say so,” the company said. Neutral news items about the debate can still be shared, even if they include a picture. Having the discussion, therefore, is still possible, emphasises the company.

Images of Zwarte Piet that have been shared in the past will be deleted if someone reports them, without further consequences. “However, if someone persistently shares content that violates our rules, further sanctions may follow and ultimately the deletion of an account.”

Besides images showing people in blackface, Facebook now also prohibits certain Jewish stereotypes, such as claims that Jews rule the world or serve in important institutions worldwide, as they are used to fuel anti-Semitism, according to the company.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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