A pair of bare breasts has reignited the conversation around what is and isn't acceptable to post to social media. German photographer Olli Waldhauer is behind the furore; he uploaded an image to Facebook which featured both a naked woman and a man holding a sign saying "Don't Buy From Kanaken" (a slur for immigrants), accompanied by the caption; "One of these people is violating Facebook's policy #nippelstatthetze".
The hashtag translates to "nipples instead of hate speech", and illustrates Waldhauer's gripe with the social network, not to mention a much larger issue; namely, that Facebook policy forbids images of nudity but is much more laissez-faire when it comes to curbing xenophobic or outright racist posts.
After Facebook removed the image in question, Waldhauer made it freely available on WeTransfer - it was subsequently downloaded and re-posted to Facebook by over 30,000 people. "I want Facebook to ban the picture not because of the nudity but because of the race-baiting," he says. "I think it's great that so many people have uploaded the picture and shown that they don't want racist pictures on Facebook."
Facebook's official definition of hate speech is: "Content that attacks people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease." However, the network does permit "attempts at humour or satire that might otherwise be considered a possible threat or attack. This includes content that many people may find to be in bad taste." A rather large loophole, which leaves plenty of convenient legal wriggle room for both Facebook and its users.
Even more worrying than the skewed rules that Waldhauer is protesting are the allegations that Facebook employees in Germany actively facilitate the spread of xenophobic sentiment on the site. Prosecutors in Hamburg recently launched an investigation following several claims that a number of employees were failing to report hate speech.
During a visit to Germany earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on the record to say that the company will be doing more in the future to combat hate speech. His plan included establishing a racism task force and promoting 'counter speech', i.e. challenging and discussing xenophobic language on the site rather than simply removing it.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said that Facebook is in danger of becoming a "funfair for the far right", and this does not just apply to Germany. In the UK, a number of nationalist groups have accumulated a loyal, vocal following on the network by targeting a wide pool of people and crafting seemingly innocuous "Like and Share"-type content. According to Nick Lowles of campaign group Hope Not Hate, social media "has given the ordinary person access to far right groups in a way that was impossible a decade ago."
The English Defence League (EDL) is one such group which has reached a wide audience; over 231,000 Likes as of November 2015. This number is only likely to grow over the next week as the page churns out a whole crop of Armistice Day-themed content. Unlike other organisations, the entire EDL movement actually originated as a single Facebook page.
Britain First, meanwhile, has more Likes on Facebook than any other British political party (over 977,000), and it is estimated that over two million people interact with Britain First content every day. Britain First is known for posting Islamophobic, anti-immigration content on social media, often twisting current events to play to fears of terrorist attacks.
But these tactics have landed the party in hot water of late, and may soon fall out of favour altogether. In June, the grieving family of Lee Rigby condemned Britain First for tastelessly using the murdered soldier's image without their permission, in an attempt to further promote anti-Islam unrest. More recently, the British Army's Royal Anglian Regiment requested that Britain First remove a Facebook photo of them. While the post was actually one of praise, the regiment objected to being associated with an extremist group.
Could it be, with the Armed Forces actively distancing themselves from nationalist propaganda, parody pages like Britain Furst lampooning such fear-mongering, and artists like Waldhauer drawing attention to the omnipresence of racist content, that that the days of casual xenophobia on Facebook may finally be numbered?
This article originally appeared at Ogilvydo.Suggest a correction