Why is Facebook Protecting Pro Rape Language and Abuse of Women?
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Since August, tens of thousands of Internet activists have taken to social media to protest a social media giant — Facebook — for its apparent tolerance of user-created pages that make sexual violence into a punchline. The pages, with titles like "Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you dont [sic] want to wake her up" and "Kicking Sluts in the Vagina," have been common to Facebook for some time, but campaigns against them began when a Facebook representative commented to the BBC on its decision not to remove that kind of content, stating, “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” The pub analogy comment circulated among feminist activists on Facebook, and it was quoted widely on blogs, sparking a series of petitions that circulated for months, demanding the removal of the pages. When Facebook failed to respond, online activists organized a Twitter hashtag Day of Action, #notfunnyfacebook, to further pressure Facebook to enforce its own terms of service and hold its users accountable. Finally, following the Twitter action, Facebook elected to delete a few of the pages. It also allowed others to remain, so long as they were retitled as parodies.
The victory came as a half-hearted one for activists, who, with more than 180,000 signatures and hundreds of Twitter participants on their side, had not been able to call Facebook to account. New pro-rape pages are still being posted. One I just visited is called “That one slut you have always wanted to kick in the face.” After scrolling past three nearly identical wall announcements explaining how I could make easy money at home today (not involving, as I had first assumed, being “slutty”), I found a handful of nasty comments, all so poorly spelled it would be difficult for them to retain any air of menace. Then I recalled the anonymous person who scrawled “FAGETS” on the wall of a student organization I worked with in college. Then I saw what the page was really used for: with the “tag a user in this post” function, fans of the page could add the name of their intended target to their wall post, and that target would potentially see the post and the threat. It made me queasy.
If it was not clear before, we must understand now that Facebook wasn't built for us — it was built for the profit of the very few. That Facebook is of value to the public as a communications platform is only important to Facebook insofar as it allows them to sell targeted advertising against our own speech. Its governing document, the Terms of Service, has been repeatedly applied unfairly and without accountability to its users, as its purpose is to legally protect Facebook from our conduct, not provide us with a free space, or even a safe space. Facebook needs to be only as minimally welcoming to us so as to ensure our return to use it again. And that we might use Facebook as a public square for activism? Not even in the business model.
Worse, Facebook has time and again turned its terms of service against the people calling it to account: women, queer people, young people, and human rights activists, among others. Facebook has removed content in favor of breastfeeding, deeming it obscene. Facebook famously removed a photo of two men kissing at a protest for queer rights. Organizers behind the UK Uncut protests had their pages deactivated by Facebook, along with dozens of related causes against austerity measures. When activists launched a call for solidarity with an Egyptian victim of police brutality, “We Are All Khaled Said,” Facebook removed the page repeatedly for terms of service violations. Its originator had used, perhaps wisely, an anonymous account to post it. Then, once the page was reinstated and its role in sparking Egypt's revolution was international news, Facebook actually claimed the page as credit for advancing the Arab Spring.
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.