How three women took on sexist Facebook and won
WELL Facebook has caved.
It took just seven days for the tech titan to bow to the thousands of people protesting online (and via Facebook – oh the irony) and agree to change its user guidelines and the way it moderates photos and posts which celebrate rape and violence against women. Having toiled as a tech hack for years, enduring an endless stream of bland comments from Facebook executives toeing the corporate line, this is no small moment.
Facebook’s PR team’s de facto position is usually “no comment” when asked about the service or alternatively they make some kind of reference to its ever evolving terms and conditions.
For three women: Laura Bates – the British 26-year-old founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, US writer Soraya Chemaly and Jaclyn Friedman – the American creator of Women, Action & the Media, to make Facebook to change its mind about anything, never mind something as large as its moderation technique and what it considers hate speech, in only one week, have achieved something quite remarkable indeed.
It would be all too easy to dismiss their protestations as three women “who just don’t have a sense of humour” about a few bits of “laddish banter” shared in the digital microcosm that is Facebook. Or to tell them to change their Facebook friendship groups.
However, this catalogue of images and posts, which the women confronted Facebook with, fall extremely far outside of that tent. I can’t publish them here on The Telegraph’s website, which is family friendly (that should tell you something in itself). But the one at the top of this story – which was ‘allowed’ by Facebook’s team of outsourced moderators after it was rightly reported – should give you, dear reader, enough of a bitter flavour of what they were on about.
These images, routinely uploaded by individuals and groups around the world, depict sexual violence, domestic violence and rape, and are routinely accompanied by little ‘jokes’.
Until today – Facebook – which disallows any such equivalent hate images or messages broadcasting homophobia, racism or anti-Semitism, has been blithely letting these images by shared, ‘liked’ and commented upon across its network for years.
As Laura Bates tells me: “These incredibly graphic and upsetting images were popping up everywhere. They were becoming prolific. We had parents get in touch telling us their children had seen images of little girls with black eyes in their News Feeds. They were appearing in Facebook Groups – which had nothing to do with women or violence – such as an Atheist Group.
“What was happening was a normalisation of these types of images across Facebook. And while Facebook executives kept telling us that the site had to allow people freedom of speech – what they didn’t account for was how these images were stifling other women’s freedom of expression – as they left the site distressed and speechless.”
And what made no sense at all was why Facebook was treating this form of hate speech differently to other forms of hate speech it proactively bans – especially once alerted to it.
In the seven days since the three women came together to launch this campaign, some 15 major advertisers have suspended their Facebook marketing campaigns - while 5,000 emails and 60,000 tweets (using the hashtag #FBRape) have been posted pushing the social network to act.
And today – victory was all theirs.
A unprecedented statement from Facebook admitted it had failed to prevent hate speech appearing on the network, and promised to update user guidelines, improve moderator training and increase accountability by forcing those posting "cruel or insensitive" content to attach their real identity to their posts.
A spokesman for the social network (unblandly) conceded: "Facebook’s mission has always been to make the world more open and connected. We seek to provide a platform where people can share and surface content, messages and ideas freely, while still respecting the rights of others.
"In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate.
"In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want. In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria."
Wow indeed. They say if you want to hit a corporate – hit its wallet. Money always talks. But an optimistic Bates doesn’t think it was just brands such as Dove or American Express pulling their campaigns, which forced the hand of Facebook.
“I really don’t think the Facebook team had fully grasped how angry and upset people were about this. Men and women felt very uncomfortable about the normalisation of these images and the deeply ingrained misogyny underpinning them,” she explains generously.
So it took just seven days for Facebook to realise it was sexist I ask her. “Yes, pretty much,” Bates says simply, with a small disbelieving laugh.
Was it not also a very poor advert for a company which has just let its top executive, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, go on a world book tour, promoting Lean In, a tome dedicated to women’s rights and gender equality?
I heard Sandberg talk while on her London leg about the power of Facebook. Unsurprisingly, these unbelievably violent images and posts filled with female hate did not feature in her presentation.
Bates agrees. “It doesn’t quite stack up having Sandberg promote such a positive message about women to the world and this stuff being on the site.”
But wiping this stuff off Facebook sadly won’t eradicate this type of awful content from the internet or society as a whole. This is something Bates is all too aware of.
Friedman, executive director of WAM!, does believe it’s a landmark moment though. “We are reaching an international tipping point in attitudes towards rape and violence against women,” she says.
“We hope that this effort stands as a testament to the power of collaborative action.”
For a long time, there has been the hope that more people will start behaving in the largely civilised way they do offline, online. And while Facebook is not the real world, nor the whole internet, it does have the power to shape cultural norms. With more than a billion members and most young people sharing their every breathing moment on the site, it is a very real microcosm, albeit a young one – with many growing pains.
This change today is yet another sign of Facebook evolving into more a law-abiding and hopefully civilised society – where a ‘jokey rape’ photo is no longer allowed. It may have taken an uncomfortably long time for the network to act but at least it has. Now it just needs its members to follow suit.
By Emma Barnett, Telegraph.co.uk