Internet Age

05.21.13

Facebook’s Anti-Woman Hate-Speech Hypocrisy?

A page called Rapebook tried to call the social-networking site out on a policy that banned nipples but overlooked posts glorifying rape and worse. Caroline Linton reports on Rapebook’s mission—and its demise.

UPDATE May 29: One week after campaign by a collective of women’s group was announced, Facebook agreed on May 28 to tighten up guidelines toward gender-based hate speech on the social network. The #FBRape campaign spurned 60,000 tweets, 5,000 emails, and big-name advertisers such as Nissan and Nationwide UK pulled ads that appeared next to graphics promoting violence against women.

On April 5, the message went out with little fanfare: Rapebook, a Facebook page created to report inappropriate material on the social-networking site, had been shut down. “We sought the proximity of Facebook administrators and regularly emailed them with the intention of being absolutely certain that things we reported were seen by Facebook administrators,” the final post read. “The results were marred, the actions taken by Facebook rarely swift and seldom sufficient to uphold their own rules.”

Rapebook was set up last November by a group of feminists who had noticed that nude art and women’s political expressions were often banned from Facebook, or caused users to be booted off the site completely, while pages that joked about or portrayed violence against women and children seemed to glide under the company’s radar. Trista Hendren, one of the co-founders of the page, described Rapebook as a way to put the women’s comments on inconsistencies in Facebook’s policies about what to ban—and what to allow—all in one place. (Facebook declined to comment for the article, other than to note that they work around the clock to monitor the content on Facebook, as per their Community Standards policy.)

Within six months, the page was shut down with a short farewell note by the only three people who could stand to be administrators anymore. Hendren, a mother of two, says she not only received threats on the page but her children’s names were posted, and these so-called trolls had found her personal phone number and left her messages so vile that she had to change her number.

“It’s not something you can do every day because it’s basically like agreeing to be punched in the face nonstop every day,” Hendren says of the experience.

Rapebook didn’t repost most of the woman-hating content found in Facebook’s backwaters, since it was so horrifying. But as the page grew in popularity, it began to attract some of the very people it had set out to fight. If and when Facebook did shut down their pages, they migrated to Rapebook and targeted its founders, Hendren included. Some of the harassers posted her address, her kids’ names, and pictures of women and girls being raped, beaten, and mutilated. In the face of the onslaught, the number of administrators involved in the page dropped from around 15 to just three. “We did the best we could do with it, but ultimately we decided this is not our job,” Hendren said. “We weren’t ever expecting to get death threats—and I’m not willing to die for Facebook.”

In Facebook’s Community Standards, the social-networking site says it retains the right to “remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk to physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety.” To handle reports sent in about inappropriate content, the site has dedicated staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We weren't ever expecting to get death threats—and I'm not willing to die for Facebook.”

But there is a growing group of Facebook users who believe these standards aren’t enough, and that there needs to more than a blanket definition of “offensive content” that will ban nipples on a piece of art or a woman breast-feeding, but can leave up a meme featuring a bruised and battered woman because it doesn’t violate the Community Standards. On Tuesday, a coalition of over two dozen women’s organizations launched an initiative for Facebook to specifically recognize hate speech against women, even if it doesn’t exactly have key words that would cause it to be flagged as “inappropriate.” Furthermore, they are calling on Facebook’s moderators to recognize gender-based hate speech, as well as the different ways hate speech affects women as opposed to men.

Soraya Chemaly, one of the women spearheading the campaign, says her problems with Facebook in many ways stem from the social-networking site’s refusal to stray from its “free speech” policy—that is, when the inappropriate content deals with women, since offensive hate speech such as homophobia is usually shut down immediately, while hate speech relating to rape or other crime seems to be delegated differently.

Chemaly uses Facebook’s nipple policy to illustrate her point: the site bans the viewing of nipples, but “you can see grossly distorted, extremely sexualized and pornographic representations of women that they have no moderation because they don’t show nipples. You end up with women who use their bodies in ways that they chose, with their consent, in political speech for example, that are silenced and banned.”

Hendren herself isn’t too hopeful that there will be a change to Facebook—in fact, she’s taken steps to remove herself as much as she possibly can from the social network. The response she received from Facebook, she says, was “totally inadequate.” “They’re allowing a platform of it and not only that, I feel it’s a breeding ground for rape, abuse, and murder of women.”