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Recently, a coalition of several prominent feminist groups wrote an open letter to Facebook asking the social media giant to become more aware of speech on its site that “glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech,” and to train its moderators to better recognize and remove such content. The letter also requested that the social media giant end its double standard in which pictures of women’s bodies posted in non-sexualized ways, such as breast-feeding, art or political advocacy are recognized as pornographic and banned–while pages like “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs” and “Raping your Girlfriend,” whose images of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged, and bleeding with gleeful captions –are recognized as humor and allowed.
Following the letter’s request to boycott Facebook, 15 major advertisers, including Nissan UK, pulled their advertisements because the ads sometimes were promoted next to hateful content. Facebook publicly acknowledged that it needs to do a better job at this, and is taking steps to update its policies and to improve its systems to remove hateful speech towards women that is in violation of those policies. But what struck me as odd is how the news media labeled this a “woman’s victory.” Some media went so far as to imply that this was a case of feminists again forcing others to “bow down” to political correctness. This is not only a women’s victory or the issue of a group forcing its viewpoint on others. Rather, the situation showcases the power of community, both online and offline, to determine what content is acceptable on a website.
While the letter was initiated by a few feminist groups, the coalition quickly grew to include 100 women’s groups and social justice organizations. They won the support of major advertisers with the dollars to enforce change. Men, too, are affected by violence against women. To all the fathers, husbands, brothers, etc. who respect and want to keep safe the women in their lives, it is extremely dismissive to say this victory does not affect them as well. To me, this is an incredible example of how online social media communities work to enforce content policies and is a great example of how it can succeed against hateful speech.
Enforcing, Updating Hate Speech Ban
The truth is that many online communities have content policies, and Facebook’s community standards ban hate speech. Of course, how these standards are interpreted and enforced in practice depends on the community. Currently, Facebook’s ban on hate speech makes distinctions between serious and humorous speech in determining what is hateful. Because of that, much of the content the open letter addressed was passed on by moderators simply because it was deemed humor. Many feminists groups took issue, believing the content went beyond the threshold of humor alone and was indeed hateful. It sends a disturbing message that as long as you label something as humor, rape it is passable; yet a serious discussion about women’s bodies may be deemed pornographic and banned.
Still, I don’t think the actions of Facebook’s moderators was intentionally biased. They have a daunting task of regulating the 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily, as well as more than 3 million active Pages. Very simply, their training standards and methods needed to be updated to be in line with current community sentiments.
The First Amendment
Image from newcapitalist.org
Luckily, many of the media reports about this have aptly pointed out that the First Amendment free speech argument for not removing such content is largely a red herring. The First Amendment only stops the government from limiting political speech, unless it violates specific situations (i.e. libel, pornography, etc.). Facebook is a private entity, not a democracy, and therefore the First Amendment is not applicable. I would be the first to protect free speech, but simply put, this isn’t a free speech debate. Glorifying rape, domestic violence (especially on pregnant women), and the mentality of women as secondary citizens who had it coming is not political speech. Plus, hiding behind the First Amendment to subject women to this hateful content on a platform where they comprise the majority of users is pretty cowardly.
Change in Enforcement of Content Policy
At the beginning, Facebook’s community may have supported such content. But it has come a long way from being an online community of only college students. It is one of the world’s largest social media platforms and the majority of its users are female. A total of 64 percent of Facebook users are women (more than half!) and women spend more time on Facebook, compared to their male counterparts, in online gaming, updating their status and commenting on the photos and status of others. Because the majority of active users of Facebook are now female, it makes sense that what content deemed offensive would change. If the majority of active users agree that this content is degrading and hateful, how is it fair (or even makes business sense) to allow it to continue? Props to the social media giant continue for listening to its community and taking steps to not allow content that the majority of it’s users find hateful.
Plain and simple, these misogynistic losers who create the offensive posts should go to other websites like 4chan or reddit to share such content. The communities and forums on these websites are dominated by those with similar interests, especially in the “she had it coming” culture. I would never say this content should not be allowed to exsit, as much as I loathe it; to each their own. However, posting and forcing such content onto an online community which is overwhelming dominated by women, as well as used by men who love and support equality for the women in their lives, is not appropriate or fair.
Facebook finally listening is not just a victory for women, because it was not achieved by women alone. This result showcases the power of online communities to determine what content is acceptable and to stand up against hate. The coalition and pressure from advertisers involved everyone (male and female, not just women) and is a victory for all.
Thoughts on this issue? Share in the comments.