Why is Facebook Protecting Pro Rape Language and Abuse of Women?
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Activists calling attention to violence against women have experienced similarly bizarre treatment by Facebook. When women's rights activists in India had their Facebook pages defaced with violent messages and sexually explicit photos, they swiftly complained to Facebook, which responded by disabling the activists' own accounts . How could Facebook have made such a rotten call? To a certain extent, it was to the credit of the activists and the genius of their message: they titled their Facebook page the “ Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women ” and adorned it with a bright pink pair of chaddi (women's underwear), inviting supporters to send a pair of their own to their target: members of a right-wing group who led attacks against women in pubs around Valentine's Day in 2009. Within a matter of weeks, they gathered over 5,000 supporters and international media attention. The irony, that a group of outspoken women's rights activists would take to Facebook to denounce restrictions on women's freedom, only to be attacked again on Facebook, and then shut down by Facebook when it demanded action to remove the hateful comments, is something of a social media ouroboros. As organizer Nisha Susan wrote at the time, “The first rule of Facebook activism seems to be 'Don't use Facebook.'”
The insidious thing about most any online activism that relies primarily on social media is that it depends significantly upon the permission and whims of a corporation. Employees at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others are at liberty to apply their terms of service as they choose, and users — the public — have little recourse. Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of Global Voices Online, encourages us to think of corporate-owned websites along the same lines as the privately owned public spaces where the Occupy movement has staged its protests. As a platform for civic action, social media websites operate much like Zuccotti Park: at any time, if their owners declare our actions there to be in violation of their rules, they can just summon cleanup crews to break things up.
It's not all doom and censorship on Facebook, of course. Digging into the profiles of users who had "liked" some of the rape-is-funny pages, feminist writer Amanda Marcotte created a little dossier on a few of them. As Facebook requires users to set up their profiles using a real name, you don't need a subpoena to click through and learn about these rape page fans' hometowns, employers, and even relationship statuses. Here, the terms of service on Facebook allow for quite a different experience of unmasking a sexist harasser than, say, tracking down the endless legion of anonymous troll commenters who leave little more than an IP address behind as a calling card.
Given these ongoing battles — and opportunities — for free speech online, journalist, censorship expert, and Internet freedom activist Rebecca MacKinnon offers this bold solution: we, as users and the public, must take back the Internet . We must demand a voice as those who are now governed, not just by states but by businesses. In her forthcoming book, The Consent of the Networked , MacKinnon proposes we need a new Magna Carta with Internet companies who use terms of service to regulate our speech, to assert our rights, and to center the civic interest, not corporate profit.
The heart of these companies — their reliance on our speech, our presence, our consent — is where we should aim our calls for transparency and accountability. Demanding that already dysfunctional terms of service be applied more harshly can only intensify the mandate of a corporation like Facebook to further regulate users' speech. This isn't to say that users who harass and threaten others should not be held accountable. Rather, we must remember that the mechanisms currently in place are blunt, do not serve the public, and in fact, have been turned against us.