24/05/2013 09:54 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 06:12 BST

It's Time to Lean on Facebook


Social media is a bit like a telephone company; if a phone call is used to threaten or blackmail somebody, the telecoms company can't be held responsible. After all, it is only providing the communication channel, not the content of the call. Or maybe it is a bit more like a broadcaster; the BBC, ITV, and all other channels, provide broadcast content and are responsible, via OFCOM, for the legality, taste and decency of the content they transmit.

Actually, social media is a subtle hybrid. It's a publically-available broadcaster of content that is privately controlled by its members, and that is where the problem lies. Because, as we have come to realise, all sorts of violent and misogynistic imagery abounds on the internet, which transcends not only the rules of legality, taste and decency, but also national boundaries. This is the challenge that Facebook faces daily, and it tries to deal with it by applying 'Community Standards' that are failing the majority of users.

Facebook is quick to remove other types of 'hate speech'. If a user posts something homophobic, racist or anti-Semitic, it tends not to stay there very long. However there is a major chasm in the law, and it is in the area of gender. Certainly under British law I have not been able to find any legislation that covers hate speech towards 51% of the global population; women. If there are such statutes, they are inapplicable if the crime is committed in another jurisdiction; Facebook pages that glorify and promote pornography, misogynistic violence and hate speech, but emanate from the United States, for example, cannot be prosecuted in the UK. The only hope we have for any internationally-applicable legal protection seems to be from Articles 7 and 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If somebody tells me I am wrong and there are other relevant statutes, I'd be delighted.

It is well-known that Facebook will remove any photograph of nudity or partial nudity, including those showing breastfeeding, or the heavily tattooed chest of a cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy. Recently it has been shown that a crotch shot of a woman in a thong was acceptable until somebody airbrushed in some pubic hair. That image disappeared very quickly.

But, horrifically, Facebook declines to remove a photo of a bruised and battered woman bearing the caption: 'WHOREMOUTH - shut it when men are talking', or a picture of a man holding a rag over a woman's mouth with the caption 'Does this smell like chloroform to you?' There are thousands of examples. If the bruises are apparently done with stage make up, or the violence is apparently posed rather than real, Facebook shrugs it off as humour and allows it to remain. That's a different approach to, for example, the British Board of Film Censors, or the Advertising Standards Authority. And then there is the phenomenon of 'creepshots' where men take covert photos of women and comment on their rapability. An Article 12 issue if ever there was one.

The interesting thing is that Facebook is repeatedly breaking its own standards. Each time a misogynistic image is reported but upheld, the message we receive from Facebook is:

Thank you for your report. We carefully reviewed the photo you reported, but found it doesn't violate our community standard on (graphic violence / hate speech) so we didn't remove it.

But this is what they say in their community standards:

Graphic Content

People use Facebook to share events through photos and videos. We understand that graphic imagery is a regular component of current events, but must balance the needs of a diverse community. Sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited.

Hate speech

Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.

I suppose they must think these posts are funny.

Who is making these censorship decisions for Facebook? Many of the moderators are underpaid workers in developing countries, who must be exposed to a horrific tide of porn, bestiality, paedophilia and graphic violence. I find it hard to understand why they are not trained or supervised to properly apply Facebook's own guidelines.

It's not enough, by the way, to tell us that if we find them offensive, we shouldn't look at those pages. It's not primarily the effect on me as a middle-aged woman that is important, it is the effect on young men and women and the quality of their relationships that matters here. The Children's Commissioner agrees. A shocked Daily Telegraph reports: 'For the first time, the Children's Commissioner for England has found a clear link between exposure to extreme images at a young age and a rise in "risky behaviours".' Really? What took her so long?

Try to ask Facebook why they employ the standards that they do, and they do not engage. So much for the newly-appointed Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who has actually started a foundation called Lean In, which is 'a global community committed to encouraging and supporting women leaning in to their ambitions', whatever that means. I've tried to contact her; I leaned in and she leaned away.

This week, a consortium of over sixty feminist groups has begun to challenge Facebook in an open letter here on the Huffington Post. On Twitter, @TheWomensRoomUK is tweeting photographs of pornographic Facebook pages alongside the adverts promoted on them, under the hashtag #FBrape, and asking advertisers if they are happy with their product placement. Some advertisers are starting to withdraw their ads from Facebook. It is well-known that Zuckerberg and his board are having problems 'monetising' Facebook content, so applying pressure though their one source of income might work. (It has occurred to me that charging Facebook users say, $20 for each new page, might deter those people whose violent pornography sites are taken down, but who simply create a new one with the same vile content. Have that idea on me, Zuckerberg.)

It is also clear that women represent a large proportion of Facebook users. How long will we tolerate Facebook's unwillingness to apply its own standards? If Facebook doesn't start to tackle the issue of abusive and misogynistic content on their pages, maybe the writing is on their wall.