Opinion: How Facebook is Failing Feminism

Feature by Kate Pasola | 27 May 2016

From censoring nipples to ignoring reports of violent misogyny, Facebook's policies are bad news for feminism

It’s 7pm on a Thursday night and you’re really bloody tired. You’ve spent the whole day passing for a functioning human to a moderately successful degree, and now you’re in the mood to relieve your little brain of if its duties for an hour or so. You’re in the kitchen, pan of penne on the boil, absent-mindedly scrolling down reams of newsfeed.

Maybe you’re looking out for an unnecessary hype article about an impending wasabi sauce shortage. Or perhaps you’re in the mood for a vine of a stupid fucking penguin being inexplicably reunited with a labrador after 16 years spent estranged. Even just a face-swap between Donald Trump and a portion of scrambled egg would do – that sort of thing. And you’re sure you’ll find it; mind-numbing chic is Facebook’s forté, after all.

And then it happens. You see something you definitely didn’t sign up for, festering away in your newsfeed, awaiting your discomfited attention. Not again. Not tonight. Not straight after work, before you’ve even opened your pesto.

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Depending on your friend list bigot-culling skills, the post in question could range from the exasperatingly ignorant to the traumatically misogynistic. A racist status about Nicki Minaj’s arse. A slut-shamey meme comparing Kim Kardashian to Princess Diana. A horrific GIF trivialising domestic violence under the guise of ‘dark comedy’. A joke encouraging anal rape. Do you click ‘report’ and grapple with Facebook’s frustratingly vague reporting procedures? Or do you cast it to the back of your mind and crack on with that of bowl of pasta, throwing on a little extra pity-cheddar to mitigate your blaring disappointment in the human race? It’s a toughie, for sure.

I used to be a serial reporter. That tragic LADBible post erring its way onto my feed due to a misguided algorithm? Report. A transphobic rant from some dude I only keep as an online acquaintance because HuffPost guilt-tripped me into surrounding myself with ‘diverse political opinions’? Report. Katie Hopkins on Beyoncé’s Lemonade? Report, report, report, report.

Like the act of searching through a misplaced wallet for the owner’s contact details or scowling at a stranger for kicking a dog, using Facebook’s report function used to feel like a tiny deed I could do to help change my immediate environment for the better. Perhaps they’d get a notification, I’d naïvely think, or a warning – something that’d finally challenge their hatred and force them to be better.

Facebook’s report function – where it all goes wrong

But more recently it began to dawn on me that almost everything I reported was falling on willingly deaf ears. With every report I filed, Facebook would respond, robotically thanking me for my input and notifying me that the rape jokes, the slut-shaming, the advocating of violence against my gender didn’t violate ‘community standards’. Those GIFs and memes and comments and posts would live merrily on, without a single other human knowing that Facebook had the opportunity to remove hateful, discriminatory content and enthusiastically abstained. Every. Single. Damned. Time.

And, of course, with a single Google search, I realised I wasn’t alone in my frustration. In 2013, the EverydaySexism project launched a campaign to put pressure on Facebook to reconsider its tolerance of content that advocates rape and gender-based violence. A relatively successful effort, the campaign bombarded advertisers like Dove cosmetics, demanding that they suspend their accounts with Facebook until the social networking giant took action. In what must have seemed like a landslide victory in May 2013, Facebook responded to the campaign via a post on their ‘Facebook Safety’ page.

Hypocrisy: ‘free speech’ and nipple censorship

The statement, signed by Facebook’s VP of Global Public Policy Marne Levine pacified the debate momentarily, quite brazenly citing ‘free speech’ and the difficulties involved in defining ‘hate speech’ as their reason for openly giving the thumbs up to offensive, sexist and hateful posts.

And, though the statement dedicates a fair few paragraphs to defending Facebook’s policies of ‘openness’, ‘connectedness’ and anti-censorship, the statement neglected to address their ongoing censoring of the female body. The company currently exerts a disproportionate amount of effort removing images of breastfeeding mothers and post-mastectomy breasts from the site. That in mind, using ‘free speech’ to checkmate feminist activism is more than a little hypocritical.

A lack of progress

It’s three years since Facebook’s response to EverydaySexism’s campaign, and very little has changed. Recently, I posted about the problem in (somewhat ironically) a Facebook feminist community called Cuntry Living, made up of over 13,000 Facebook users. Hundreds of feminists responded expressively, sharing stories, screenshots and frustrations which I’ve begun to compile in an online blog called Facebook Likes This. “The extent to which this is possible for Facebook is based on obscurity,” one administrator of the group commented. “They can do what they like because it's really difficult for individuals to hold them accountable – they provide no reasoning for rejections.”

Use of underpaid, ‘outsourced’ content moderators

Another user pointed out that the problem lies in a place far darker than sheer ignorance or hypocrisy. The task of responding to reports and moderating content is a gargantuan one for any largely populated site, and one which, according to interviews and research carried out by Wired, is often assigned to labourers in developing areas of the Philippines and India for paltry salaries. Sometimes these workers are not subjected to appropriate background checks, and the traumatic elements of a working day spent watching gory, pornographic and terrorising images aren’t factored into the employee’s workload.

Not only is this gruesome news for human rights, fair trade and data protection, but it explains how certain reported content might just slip through the net, depending on context. It’s conceivable that when you’re assigned the task of stripping a giant networking site of beheadings, revenge porn and animal murder, a sexist slur could, unfortunately, appear low on the list of moderator priorities.

But, if these moderation conditions are true for the likes of Facebook, they are not an excuse for ignoring the demands of women who’ve had enough. Greater, more culturally nuanced moderation systems are needed, and the dedicated labourers should be given thorough training and salaries which reflect the emotionally, intellectually and philosophically exhausting task of scrubbing the floors of Facebook.

Sounds expensive, sure, but let’s not forget that Facebook boasts the back pocket dollars to try and buy out Snapchat for 3 billion dollars. It’s a leading multinational company with the time to automate personalised photo collages for each of its users, to integrate colossal banks of GIFs into conversations, to unroll software which allows users to track every movement of their friends. They can afford to do better than this. And, what’s more, a virtual environment with more users than the population of any country on Earth should feel a responsibility to do better than this.

Female-identifying people make up half of Facebook’s usership, and overlooking this fact is a dangerous move. We forget, mindlessly scrolling and desperately sighing, that we’re able to revoke the site’s access to our lives at any time, granted that we’re able to summon the willpower to click ‘deactivate’. But the longer demands for an environment less hostile to women are ignored, the more tempting it feels to click that button, opting out of Zuckerberg’s 1.65 billion strong ‘global community’ for good.