Facebook: No Pot Leaves Allowed -- But Racism and Sexism Are Fine
This post originally appeared on Campus Progress.
Facebook raised a few eyebrows last week when it announced it would no longer run advertisements for Proposition 19, California’s pro-marijuana initiative, as long as they featured a picture of a pot leaf. According to one spokesperson, the site doesn’t “allow any images of drugs, drug paraphernalia, or tobacco in ad images … Sometimes our automated and manual processes miss these, but our policy has always been the same.”
The incident renewed questions about the criteria by which Facebook deems ads — and content in general — “appropriate.” But if nixing a “pro-drug” image is staying appropriate, wouldn't it also make sense rid of sexist and racist content? According to Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, “You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law.” Drawing the line between violating rights and maintaining a standard of simple decency becomes more complicated.
Currently, Facebook allows a veritable potpourri of less-than-sophisticated images to appear in its ads — from scantily clad “Christian Girls” to a Google logo with two barely covered breasts standing in for the word’s two Os. Thong bikinis abound, as do images that seem to promise some sort of lesbian sexual encounter if clicked. For a while, the site even allowed photos of a topless model, her breasts barely covered by a thin red bar, to promote a dating site. Though the latter ads were eventually removed, various hyper-sexualized images, like the ones below, still remain:
So what exactly are the rules? In 2008, Facebook formally drew the line by saying they'd remove any photographs that revealed the “ nipple or areola,” but this regulation became problematic after the site began yanking pictures of mothers breastfeeding their children. Arguing that they had been subjected to a sexual double standard, more than 11,000 women protested the rule by waging a virtual “nurse-in,” posting pictures of themselves breastfeeding. The site refused to budge on the issue; and at last count, a petition page called “Hey facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” claimed 259,572 signatories.
Facebook also came under intense pressure last year after announcing it would continue to host Holocaust Denial groups. Critics, like Guardian columnist Andre Oboler, claimed that the policy violated Facebook’s own rules. The site, he wrote, “either fails to understand the responsibility it has to society, or it has placed profit far above morality.” Facebook, for its part, argued “the mere statement of denying the Holocaust does not constitute a violation of our policies.”
Boiled down, the Prop 19 issue is a continuation of this trend: An issue of morals versus existing policies. Facebook maintains that it was right to block “inappropriate” material — and indeed, from a legal standpoint, it is acting well within its bounds as a company. But the move, which incensed activists (about 10,500 are now part of an anti-censorship campaign), also unearthed some of the limits and inconsistencies of Facebook’s catch-all guidelines: Women, for example, could likely appear in a variety of degrading roles, so long as they’re not holding a pot leaf. Hate groups could continue to spread their vitriol, so long as they’re not smoking weed while doing it.
If there’s one lesson to be taken away from Facebook’s anti-pot debacle, it’s this: Sexism and racism may not be illegal in the United States (though Holocaust denial is in fact outlawed in 13 other countries), but they are nonetheless immensely important issues — problems that warrant at least as much attention as a few leafy greens.