article

11.05.11

Should Facebook Ban Sexist Pages?

It started with an online petition calling for Facebook to ban pages that promote sexual violence. Now bloggers are taking to Twitter to bring attention to harassment. Jessica Bennett reports on the enduring problem of misogyny onlineand how female bloggers are fighting back.

There are a few rules to online writing that every female journalist (or blogger) knows:

1. Get ready to be harassed in comments. Like whoa.

2. These comments will often tell you to “go back to the kitchen.” Or describe how fat/ugly/slutty you look. Especially if the story is about women’s issues.

3. These comments will likely be much more viscous/personal/sexual in nature than those bombing your male colleagues.

No, there isn't a ton of concrete data to prove this, which makes it easy to dismiss such complaints as whiny. But what we do know is that from 2000 to 2008, nearly three quarters of online harassment complainants were female—and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. The twisted tale of well-known programmer Kathy Sierra, who was driven offline by threats of rape and violence, is perhaps the most high-profile case of a female blogger being silenced. But there are plenty of recent stories, too. Women have taken male names to avoid being a target for their online musings; still others simply accept the abuse as fact: they think something's wrong if it doesn't happen.

But the latest fury over web misogyny has landed in the social networking realm, in the form of an ongoing Twitter campaign to bring attention to the problem, a UK protest called "Rape is Never Funny," and, perhaps most prominently, an online petition, 188,000 signatures strong, calling on Facebook to ban pages that organizers say promote sexual violence, and even rape. The pages in question? "Kicking Sluts in the Vagina" (which has 3,338 "likes"), "You know she's playing hard to get when your (sic) chasing her down an alleyway" (with 3,443 fans), and “What’s 10 inches and gets girls to have sex with me? My knife" (which has been removed since the petition launched). (UPDATE: Facebook has allegedly removed many of the offending pages. A spokesman for the site did not return an email seeking clarification.)

These pages aren't open to the public—a person has to be logged in to see them. And, judging by the titles, they're not written by the most grammatically proficient users. (It's you're with an re, thanks.) Yet while Facebook's Terms of Service ban content that is “hateful, threatening,” or contains “graphic or gratuitous violence,” these pages, as defined by Facebook's community standards, don't fall under the site’s definition of "hate speech." Were the pages encouraging rape, bullying, or violence toward a particular individual—say, kicking the vagina (don't laugh) of that slut Jane Doe—Facebook says it would be a different story. "Groups or pages that express an opinion on a state, institution, or set of beliefs—even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some—do not by themselves violate our policies," a spokesman for the site, Andrew Noyes, tells The Daily Beast. "These online discussions are a reflection of those happening offline, where conversations happen freely."

"I talk to women every day who've been silenced, scared, and just want to disappear."

The difference, of course, is that offline conversations don't happen in front of a built-in audience of 800 million users. Facebook has already come under fire this year for refusing to ban Holocaust denial pagesdespite, as many commentators pointed out, regularly removing photos of women breast feeding because, as the site put it, they constituted “obscene content." In the case of anti-Semitism, Facebook told The Daily Beast that the site does ultimately end up removing "the vast majority” of the offensive content, “because it's explicitly hateful or threatening." To which petition organizers want to know: Does Facebook not see that all of these things are all connected? "The point that people are missing about this is that it’s not just the titles of the page--it’s the content," says Shelby Knox, the women's rights director for Change.org, which is hosting the petition. "It's perpetuating a cesspool on Facebook for those who would perpetuate real world violence and rape."

Over the last week, a number of women's organizations have taken Facebook to task on Twitter, posting under the hashtag #notfunnyFacebook, and tweeting specifically at the company's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandbergthe company's highest-ranking female. As if on cue, the Women's Media Center, which had participated in the campaign, was hacked on Friday, sending out a flurry of “Go back to the kitchen" and "What do you call a woman with a black eye? A quick learner”-type messages. The two things may have nothing to do with each other, but the timing was impeccable all the same. Online misogyny, it seems, is alive and well. "I talk to women every day who've been silenced, scared, and just want to disappear," says Danielle Citron, a cyber law professor at the University of Maryland. "It's easy to dismiss these things as frat-boy antics, but this isn't a joke."

Indeed, Citron has heard enough stories to compile a whole book of them—she's hard at work on a text about online harassment that will be published by Harvard University Press in 2013. She notes the recent cases that have made headlines: the women smeared by AutoAdmit, the law school discussion board; the case of Harvard sex blogger Lena Chen; and the dramatic story of 11-year-old Jessi Slaughter.

But perhaps none was as harrowing as the tale of Kathy Sierrawhose relentless harassment, which included being sent doctored images of herself with a noose around her neck, prompted the Washington Post to declare that sexual threats were "stifling" a generation of emerging young bloggers. At the time, the paper quoted Joan Walsh, then editor of Salon, who described how, since the letters section of her site had been automated, it made it "hard to ignore" how much more "brutal and vicious" the comments directed at her female writers were. Arianna Huffington lamented that anonymity had allowed "a lot of those dark prejudices towards women to surface."

In what she intended to be her final blog post, Kathy Sierra wrote:

"I have cancelled all speaking engagements.

"I am afraid to leave my yard.

"I will never feel the same. I will never be the same."

Things have changed somewhat since then. Chatroomsat times the seedy strip clubs of internet engagementare less popular than they once were. Women have forged new domains: dominating social blogging platforms and networking sites like Facebook, which allow them to control who and what they want to see. And female bloggers have also teamed up: many describe alliances, or informal groups, where they have vowed to defend each other against malicious attacks. Others call their attackers out publicly. “I don’t see the all-out digital assaults happen like I used to (thank goodness),” says Deanna Zandt, a New York media consultant and the author of Share This!, about the power of social networks. But, she adds, “I also don’t think the absence of these crazy attacks means things are getting better.”

In some ways, misogyny on Facebook is just a newer version of the same old problem. Sure, it may be more subtle—less "I'm going to rape and slit your throat" and more "let's kick sluts in the face!" But that doesn't make it any less toxic. "Is it less overtly harmful because it's indirect? Yeah, I guess," says Susan Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University, who has spent two decades studying gender online. "But that doesn't mean it's any less real."

What's more real than ever, however, is the way victims are fighting back. "The troll problem is always on the back of my mind," says sex blogger turned fulltime writer Lena Chen. "...But these [new campaigns] are great, because the sheer number of particpants makes me feel safer in speaking out. I'm not sure that's a rational perspectivesince trolls can still single you outbut I think it's reassuring to victims to know they're not on their own."