On May 21st 2013, the Women, Action & the Media group wrote an open letter to Facebook, which was signed by over 100 advocacy groups, asking them to review their policies on permitted content.
There has long been a problem on the site. While its “community standards” seem to be fairly clear:
“Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech*. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.
Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment.
Sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited.
Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.”
These rules seemed to be enforced in a somewhat sporadic and misdirected manner.
People were often complaining of their breastfeeding photos being taken down. While some may (oddly) disagree with people being public about the act, people should be able to share these images on their own platforms. You can hide other people’s photos that you don’t personally want to see. But these images were being removed because they were ‘offensive’ and breaching the terms.
In a now-famous case, one woman who had undergone a double mastectomy followed by an ambitious tattoo project had her torso image taken down. This was not a pornographic image. Other educational materials have been removed, even anatomical drawings, which one would have thought would surely be unobjectionable.
Yet, alongside all of this, some very disturbing and hateful pages were being left alone. Pages sharing images of women with extensive facial injuries, bruising and bleeding, hair emerging from a closed car boot, women collapsed at the bottom of flights of stairs, men forcing women’s heads down toilets – all with nasty misogynistic captions including incitement to rape and domestic violence – and purely pornographic pages devoted to sharing photos of “sluts” and people’s ex-girlfriends. Graphic examples (not for the faint of heart) and some more background on the campaign as it went along can be found on this page.
So, what could be done about this?
Facebook makes a lot of money from advertising. Companies pay to promote their ads, and these are semi-customisable as to where they appear on the site, and to whom. The hateful pages as described above also have ads displayed, so what WAM and other groups (including @everydaysexism and @thewomensroomUK) did was to start a hashtag campaign on twitter alongside the open letter: #FBrape.
On this hashtag, users shared screenshots of companies’ ads featuring on these pages with violent misogynistic content and asked them to pull their funding from Facebook. Reporting the pages individually has never worked; even if the complaint is upheld, a new page springs up and remains unchallenged. So getting companies to affect Facebook’s profits seemed a more sensible and effective way to go.
Within days, companies started to pull their ads from the site in response to rising pressure via Twitter and letter-writing. Articles were written for the Independent and the Guardian and the campaign was shared widely by individuals and sites such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.
This week, Facebook has agreed to review its policies and has taken down a large number of pages, as well as making plans to work with WAM and the Everyday Sexism project to implement new guidelines and monitoring. Facebook’s statement and WAM‘s statement are available to read. See also: BBC, Channel 4 News, HuffPo and HuffPo again.
— Women’s Media Center (@womensmediacntr) May 28, 2013
While companies like Nissan helped this campaign to work by ceasing to pay for adverts on Facebook, others notably did not, instead steadfastly refusing to engage with tweets and comments asking why. It will be interesting to see if anything ever comes of this given how many people have pledged not to buy their products any more. Dove and audible.co.uk, for example.
I’d like to see a list of companies who did and didn’t pull their ads, so that people can continue to make informed choices about their purchases. Please leave a comment if you have such a list, or one company name you’d like to highlight.
Dove seemed not to pay attention to the campaign or what people were saying, instead giving a standard copy-paste response in some cases:
Thank you for raising this. Dove is committed to representing beauty of all ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes. We believe in celebrating real beauty and in raising the self-esteem of women and young girls globally. We were shocked to see our advert on these kinds of pages and have spoken to Facebook who have removed all the pages that have come to our attention. If you do see a page like this, please private message us the link so that we can ask Facebook to remove it. As Facebook advertising targets people, not pages, we cannot select which pages our adverts appear on. For the future, we have refined our targeting to reduce the chance of any adverts appearing on similar pages. If there are more pages like this that haven’t been removed, please private message the links to us and we’ll have Facebook take these down.
As stated above, reporting individual pages does not solve the problem. It’s clearer policy and enforcement that needed to happen. Fortunately, it seems like it will, regardless.
Social media is an evolving entity. Policy and lawmakers are struggling to keep up – and some users are having spectacular common sense failings in the process. In related fall-out, users who posted on University “rate your shag” pages may now be facing legal action. That’ll teach ’em…
What it wasn’t about
Some will say we all just need to learn to take a joke. Hopefully this shows that the vast majority of us are no longer willing to accept misogyny covered by a thin veil of supposed comedic intent. Comedy is not about oppressing the already oppressed, or promoting violence and hatred towards certain groups.
Facebook is so widely used now, particularly by younger people, and it has the power to influence general attitudes; it is not only guided by them. By joining the fight against misogyny rather than aiding it, we could start to see some real positive changes. It is heartening to see a campaign so well-organised, with a clear purpose, receive so much support and have such an effect so quickly.
May there be many more.