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Facebook says it has more than 20 million active users in Germany. (Joerg Koch/AP)
Facebook says it has more than 20 million active users in Germany. (Joerg Koch/AP)

Tables turned: Facebook hit with social media campaign over sexist content Add to ...

How would you feel if your company’s ads were positioned beside:

  • A photo of a woman with tape over her mouth with text that reads: “Don’t wrap it and tap it, tape it and rape her”
  • A photo of a woman lying on a staircase landing with text that reads: “Next time, don’t get pregnant”
  • Entire photo albums of bruised and bloodied women

That’s what’s happening to American Express, Dove, Zipcar, Audible and more. (Screenshots of these images next to Facebook advertising have been posted online, it’s extremely graphic content so proceed at your own risk.) It can happen to any company that advertises with Facebook, because the people who run the site that affects the daily lives of over a billion people seem unable to uphold their own policies when it comes to gender-based hate speech and representations of violence.

According to Facebook’s community standards, the following (among others) are not allowed on the site in any form: violence, threats, bullying, harassment, nudity, and pornography. And yet countless pages depicting, condoning and encouraging violence against women are allowed to exist on Facebook under the guise of humour, free speech or not being considered “real-world” violence. Given the ongoing prevalence of violence against women worldwide, especially in domestic and sexual contexts, many people aren’t laughing.

It’s not as if Facebook moderators are twiddling their thumbs – no, they have been doing the very important work of removing photos and banning users from The Scar Project (of moms breastfeeding their babies, and of anatomical drawings of vaginas; while graphic and objectifying pages that have hundreds of thousands of likes such as “Big boobs and sex” and “Wet P**** (Parental Advisory)” stay up for all to see. Even worse, such hateful pages as “Smoking crack while ****ing dead hookers” and photos of bloodied women with such captions as “Women deserve equal rights... and lefts” seem to escape similar scrutiny from the moderators.

At least, it was escaping attention until May 21, when Women, Action & Media (WAM!) wrote an open letter to Facebook and asked people to contact companies whose ads were appearing beside violent and hateful content. Now, Facebook has started cleaning house.

In three days, 22,000 tweets and almost 2,000 e-mails have been sent in support of WAM!’s campaign, which asks Facebook to ban gender-based hate speech; and train moderators to more effectively handle such content and understand how online harassment fits into the real-world pandemic of violence against women. Seven advertisers have said they’d pull their ads. And I’m not entirely sure it’s related, but I can’t help but notice that Facebook’s stock has gone down.

“The whole campaign has been extraordinary,” said Jaclyn Friedman, Executive Director of WAM!. “The list of signatories to the Open Letter speaks volumes: this is an issue that social justice and human rights organizations from around the globe are taking a stand on. And the response on Twitter and elsewhere of Facebook users has shown how urgently change is needed.”

So far, Facebook has made no statement about the broader goals of the campaign and its only visible action has been removing some of the specific pages targeted by WAM!. This seems to have satisfied some advertisers, but as Laura Slatterly writes in The Irish Times, this would never fly in any other advertising medium. It seems likely more of these pages will crop up and continue using violence against women as a “joke” – and tarnishing the reputations brands hold so dear.

I asked Friedman if WAM! has heard from Facebook, but all she could confirm was that they are in negotiations.

WAM! should celebrate the changes it has inspired, but all Facebook users should remember what it took to get the company’s attention – not reports on policy violations, not appeals to human decency, but an attack on their revenue. Effective moderation of gender-based hate speech and representations of violence should be a no-brainer. What’s taking Facebook so long?

Update: On May 28, Facebook published an official statement about the WAM! campaign and announced its commitment to improving policies, training and accountability.

Marne Levine, VP of Global Public Policy at Facebook, wrote: "In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want. In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria. We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will."

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