Facebook has to find a better way to deal with hateful conduct. | Kynan Denny and Jorge Gierman/Reuters

Last week the New York Times published a short video of young African-American Kynan Denny being abused and asked to remove his dreadlocks on a United flight. The airline responded with racist statements, and Denny was removed from the flight. The New York Times called it one of the biggest #BlackLivesMatter-related cases of racial mistreatment that it has encountered, and it rightly claimed that Denny had been pulled from his seat by Chicago police to be escorted off a plane, and that his hairstyle had led to the flight’s cancellation. The airline executives (including United’s former CEO) denied that it had done anything out of the ordinary and that the young man had “let down the entire United family, his family and all the valued customers who have come to our events in recent years”. The executive board chair of the NAACP said that the case was a “barometer of how the public and the media perceived the portrayal of African Americans,” and called for United to be branded “the United Company with No Inclusivity”.

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Perhaps these accusations are right, but even if they were not, it hardly changes the fact that the incident is emblematic of how Facebook works – not only a company that encouraged the banning of a male breastfeeding mother, but a platform that funnels racism, misogyny, and other forms of antisocial behaviour. Denny was not a profile or a photo or a video, but his dreadlocks on his head. He was an advertisement for the two fiefdoms, and that resulted in the loss of the United flight.

To be sure, Denny’s account of being bullied by United is brutal:

“When I asked the flight attendant why they called me back to the emergency exit, she said that I was blocking a space. When I asked her what my space was, she answered that she did not know. I then asked her for her name. She gave it to me, and I looked at it and I looked at her and I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ She did not answer. I asked her if she wanted to stay, and she did not answer.”

These facts ring remarkably true for the international flight. First, just like in the movie Groundhog Day, the same exact thing happened over and over again. Second, there are 461,000 photos tagged with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and according to News Blacker, over 577,000 photos tagged with the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.

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Denny’s, like all the images used to further these causes, has now been removed from Facebook, but the effect of that removing was massive, and the company now operates within a constrained space that has its own dramatic scale. Nearly all of Facebook’s users are based outside the US, mostly in India and Africa, with many based in countries that have already experienced state and corporate racism.

Even outside the US, the situation remains dire. The social network is a massive medium that gives so much power to so few people; today, my Instagram feed shows that being a white woman in the US (or even a blond white woman in the UK) is enough to become subject to racist harassment and trolling. Facebook has been slow to respond to complaints from staff or politicians about posts from racists that are directed at them or their loved ones, but thanks to dedicated committees that monitor the huge changes that take place on Facebook’s network, it has recently taken action against terrorist groups and hate speech.

The situation in the US is getting better, and police brutality has been significantly reduced, but these are still complicated situations. The last thing we need is a grand scam, but the surveillance-focused criminal-justice system has both made monitoring abhorrent, and prevented authorities from exercising the power that they do have. We now need a new system of punishment, one that is not driven by ideology and which can give more rights to less people. Facebook, and so many other networks, cannot fix itself.

• Hannah Jane Parkinson is an independent consultant for the New York-based digital media agency Dumenco Group

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