Facebook’s New Policy Erases the Ads, Not the Hate, Critics Say

Facebook is changing its review process to protect brands from having their advertising placed next to violent, sexual, or otherwise objectionable content, but critics say that the policy does not go far enough to remove the content altogether.

Starting Monday, Facebook will implement a new review policy for deciding which Pages and groups will be eligible to have advertising appear on the right side of the page next to their content, which the company outlined in a newsroom post earlier today. “In order to be thorough, this review process will be manual at first, but in the coming weeks, we will build a more scalable, automated way to prevent and/or remove ads appearing next to controversial content,” the post explained.

“I think they are still missing the point entirely,” said Trista Hendren, author of The Girl God, in an email. “There are still a lot of pages that just should not be up on Facebook whatsoever. This statement may make advertisers feel a bit better, but I wouldn’t spend a dime on Facebook knowing that they are a leading platform for human trafficking – which primarily consists of children. Whether or not an advertisement appears next to these pages does not mean that the violence against women and girls on Facebook has been addressed adequately. It does not diminish what their advertising dollars are still paying for.”

Hendren had tried using a Facebook Page, ”Rapebook,” to report content on the site that mocked and even glorified abuse toward women and children when she found that complaining to Facebook was not enough. But mob mentality ruled, and Hendren eventually had to remove her personal profile after receiving threats of violence from her critics, some of whom went so far as to publicly post personal information about the writer and her family.

Another feminist writer, Soraya Chemaly, documented the internet’s hate speech problem in an article about a woman whose plea to her university’s president to address the misogynistic culture at the University of Connecticut (see the rape meme derived from the school’s mascot) was rewarded with threats of rape. Even Chemaly’s article, which was published on the Huffington Post website in April, inspired more than one hateful comment from readers.

Writer and English professor Liz Boltz Ranfeld petitioned Facebook when she discovered something far worse than crude humor — human trafficking — on a Facebook Page for the red light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata, India. The Page was deleted shortly thereafter, but only because (according to Facebook) it had clearly violated Facebook’s terms of service and had not been caught previously due to a technical error.

On May 21, Chemaly and a group of activists led by Women, Action and the Media (WAM!) and the Everyday Sexism project posted an open letter to Facebook demanding that the company learn to moderate its site for violent content and urging advertisers to boycott the social network until Facebook complied. Fifteen advertisers did, including Nissan UK, J Street, and online bank Nationwide UK.

Facebook responded to the petition on May 28 with a note explaining the company’s policies and a promise to work harder “to reduce the proliferation of content that could create an unsafe environment for users.”

Janice Sands, executive director of the women’s arts organization Pen and Brush, was dismayed to read hateful comments written by Facebook users, mostly men, who were not supportive of the efforts to remove hateful content from the site. “It was a reminder to me and to the organization of how insidious and entrenched these attitudes are about sexism against women,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We think rape is particularly egregious because it’s an act of violence, it’s an act of war,” Sands said. “It’s not appropriate for casual treatment; it’s not humorous; it’s not a joke.”

Sands was also critical of Facebook’s reaction to the complaints, especially COO Sheryl Sandberg’s. “She addressed the issue from the standpoint on how difficult it is for their moderators to look at all the content on their site and also to be able to have clear definitions of what constitutes hate speech and not just something that’s offensive,” said Sands.

As for “Facebook’s new policy for Pages and Groups,” Sands added today, “…It is not clear to us that this policy shows any deepening of Facebook’s understanding of their own corporate responsibility to be more vigilant about content that harms women and may foster attitudes and permit action that condones abusive language and actions against women. We will continue to monitor Facebook’s other policies to see if it will be more effective in removing hate speech content because it is the right thing to do.”

Sands understands the difficulty of vetting potentially offensive content — her organization deals with artists who may sometimes push the boundaries of societal norms. “We have generally had a policy that we do not censor the content of the work that’s shown,” she explained. “There is an interesting qualifier to that, though, because we only show work that is created by women. To the extent that it’s edgy, that it’s political, and the content may offend some people, because we also use outside panels of jurors and curators for our shows, the work reflects women’s reactions to their own status in society. That is a very different thing than being the subject or the object of hate speech or of images that show violence against women.”

Breast cancer survivor Scorchy Barrington echoed this sentiment with her Change.org petition asking Facebook to allow people to post nude photos of women who have undergone mastectomies.

Facebook’s response was “Yes,” but also no. “We agree that undergoing a mastectomy is a life-changing experience and that sharing photos can help raise awareness about breast cancer and support the men and women facing a diagnosis, undergoing treatment, or living with the scars of cancer,” the company explains in its Help section. “The vast majority of these kinds of photos are compliant with our policies. However, photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery, do violate Facebook’s Terms. These policies are based on the same standards which apply to television and print media, and that govern sites with a significant number of young people.”

With more than a billion monthly active users, the world’s largest social network connects an increasingly diverse, global audience of people who clearly have different ideas about what’s appropriate, but its place in society is significant enough that people don’t want to have to delete their accounts out of fear.

Said Sands, whose organization predates Facebook by more than a hundred years, “In the same way that we have modified our focus and our program to track the evolution of what’s been happening with women’s approach to their art, we realize that we have to adapt and make use of social media — it’s extremely powerful. So this issue with Facebook was really important to us.”