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How A Trio Of Feminists Persuaded Facebook To Unfriend Rape "Humor" Groups

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, May 30 2013

Beyond a joke: Facebook recently admitted that its flagging system is flawed

A global campaign to alert advertisers moved Facebook to take action against groups flagged as promoters of "gender-based hate" after several years of repeated attempts to persuade the company to change the way it evaluates requests for take-downs.

"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as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate," Facebook admitted on Tuesday, adding it is using "outdated criteria," to evaluate the removal of content.

Three women — Women, Action and the Media's Executive Director Jaclyn Friedman, one of its members and writer and activist Soraya Chemaly, and U.K. writer and activist Laura Bates, founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, a site that collects anecdotes from the public about incidents of sexism experienced by women in their daily lives — hatched a May campaign to put these efforts over the top. They wrote an open letter to Facebook and partnered with a coalition of womens and human rights groups to ask members to write to advertisers to question why their ads were appearing against this kind of user-generated content. On Wednesday, the campaigners reported that altogether, the coalition of activists sent 5,000 e-mails to Facebook's advertisers and generated 60,000 Tweets.

The action came after previous attempts, such as a petition with more than 200,000 signatures, failed to move Facebook to change how it evaluates decisions on whether depictions of violence against women are hateful or not, and thus violating its own community guidelines.

Both Bates and Chemaly had been documenting the kinds of violent images that had been appearing on Facebook at The Huffington Post and The Guardian for months, and explaining why they think that the presence of such content goes beyond reasonable allowances for freedom of speech or varying definitions of humor.

"It's about how mainstream misogynistic norms are embedded, not only in Facebook's interpretations of 'free speech,' 'safety,' 'humor' and 'credible threats,' but in the very way their review process is structured," Chemaly wrote in an April piece for The Guardian.

In a previous article published at The Huffington Post, she pointed out the disturbing statistic that one in three women around the globe will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, and that millions of women around the world are further killed in domestic violence situations or treated as chattel in the sex slave trade. The idea is that Facebook is a microcosm of 'real life,' and that what goes on on Facebook is an extension of what happens in real life. What's more, Facebook is a platform, and has adopted principles to ensure that members of its community feel safe.

Feminists have also pointed out that groups promoting violence against women and girls as a joke reflected a disturbing cultural phenomenon in real life: actual incidents of rape, and the victims shamed on social media.

In April, Bates, who is based in London, addressed a tweet to Finnair, asking them if they were aware that their ads were appearing against such violent content. Several of her followers followed suit. A representative from Finnair responded with a tweet asking for the URL so that it could take action, saying that "It is totally against our values and policies." Several other advertisers who had been alerted also contacted Facebook to complain.

Meanwhile, Friedman, in Boston, was in the process of creating a monthly action campaign for her group, where members of WAM are asked to take one action a month on issues pertaining to women and media.

"I was looking for a first action to launch the initiative, and Soraya is a member of our organization, and I knew she is really passionate about this, as I am too," Friedman said in a recent interview.

Chemaly had sent some recommendations on how Facebook should change its moderation policies and evaluation criteria to address groups that framed violence against women and children as jokes. In a radio program, Chemaly said that she had contacted Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. And in a conversation with techPresident, she added that she had also been in touch with the company's vice president of global public policy, Marne Levine. Chemaly said that Levine had responded with some thoughtful emails, and was quick to note that the policy changes that Facebook ultimately made were possible because of Levine's responsiveness.

But initially, the email conversations about the potential changes to policy "trickled off, so I thought that this would be the next best thing to do," she said.

That's when Friedman called her about participating in WAM's first monthly action campaign.

Chemaly immediately brought in Bates. The trio discussed Bates' tweet in April and its effectiveness in galvanizing advertisers to push Facebook take action. The group also looked to past success stories for inspiration. Friedman said that in the back of their minds was the wildly successful social media campaigns that pressured dozens of advertisers and radio stations to drop conservative talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh's program after he called Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke a "slut" for advocating insurance coverage for birth control pills.

"We thought that sometimes when companies aren't paying attention to their users, you want to go after their pocketbook," Friedman said.

The trio were wary though. They took heed of what happened to children's author and feminist Trista Hendren, of Portland, Oregon, who had started a Facebook page called "Rapebook." "Rapebook" was designed to be a place where members of Facebook could report instances of violent and threatening material against women and children on the network, many of which were framed as humor and tolerated on Facebook in the name of free speech. WAM has maintained a page with examples (warning, the images are graphic) which were up as recently as this past Monday.

The page started filling up with death and rape threats, and pictures of women getting raped. People found Hendren's personal information and posted her photos, e-mail and phone number on the Web. She removed her Facebook page and her personal blog. She called the FBI.

Bates, Chemaly, and Friedman, spent a lot of time trying to batten down their virtual hatches before launching their campaign. Friedman hired to help her discover where all her personal information might be lurking online. She blocked access to her address and contact information through WHOIS, the domain name address administrator contact directory. She upped the security settings on her Web services. She removed any potentially embarrassing photos that might be online.

"I made sure to remove my photos that I would be really upset at having a meme scrawled across," she said, laughing. But she added: "I can't get rid of all the photos on the Internet, so if someone wants to create a meme, they can create a meme."

She struggled with whether she would get rid of her Facebook page.

"I'm an opinion maker, and a public figure, and so I don't want to lock down unless you're my best friend, and you can't see anything," she said. "Sp I just made some compromises. I just made sure that some information is only available to friends. Then I left a lot of it open."

Then, around May 17, the women contacted a trusted group of allies to launch the action, which involved asking their own members to publicize an open letter to Facebook and asking people to tweet #FBRape to advertisers to pressure Facebook to take action.

The open letter asked Facebook to recognize that language glorifying violence against women shouldn't be trivialized, and is instead a form of hate speech. The signatories also asked Facebook to better train moderators to understand how such content might affect the millions of women who are victims of such violence. The letter also provided examples of groups that in their opinion fell into the category of hate speech, such as "Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus," "Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny Because She Won't Make You a Sandwich," and others.

Dozens of other organizations ended up signing up after the letter was posted online last Tuesday, May 21. And the targeted companies responded by either pulling their ads or contacting Facebook about WAM's concerns.

Facebook acceded to these demands a week later in a detailed post by Levine about its community standards, its definition of hate speech, and how its "defense of freedom of expression should never be interpreted as a license to bully, harass, abuse or threaten violence."

Levine also said that the company would work more closely with both womens' groups and the Anti-Defamation League to "assure expedited treatment of content they believe violate our standards."

In an interview Wednesday, Friedman sounded jubilant.

"I really hope this sets a new bar and raises an industry standard," she said. "It also allows users to know that they don't have to put up with it. I think for so long people thought: 'This is so awful, what can you do?' And I'm hoping that this success story will send a message saying well: 'You can keep trying things until you find something that works.'"

Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League's civil rights director, applauded Facebook for its move, noting that it's one of the few social networks that has defined a standard on hate speech ("direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease.") She hopes that others, such as Tumblr and Twitter, follow suit.