Facebook's turning point on sexual violence

Activists fight hate speech on Facebook

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Activists fight hate speech on Facebook 04:25

Story highlights

  • Facebook agrees to crack down on gender-based hate speech
  • Michelle Kinsey Bruns: Site allowed content glorifying rape, other violence against women
  • It's no First Amendment issue, she says; it's about terms of use, shareholders
  • Kinsey Bruns: Move is very significant to women; Tumblr, Twitter, Google+ must follow

After a weeklong campaign by a coalition of more than 100 women's groups, Facebook announced Tuesday that it would update its guidelines and moderator training to crack down on gender-based hate speech. This commitment, though only a prelude to effective and consistent implementation, marks a watershed moment in the cultural evolution of the billion-user-strong social media platform -- and perhaps even of the entire internet.

The activist campaign spotlighted a proliferation of content glorifying rape and other violence against women on Facebook. Groups and images with allegedly humorous titles like "Raping a Pregnant B***h and Telling Your Friends You Had a Threesome" have always been only a click away and, under Facebook's content policy until now, stood a better chance of surviving moderator review than photos of breastfeeding babies did.

Some have criticized the activist campaign as an attack on free speech, but free speech here is a red herring at best. Facebook is a private enterprise, and the First Amendment quite simply is not the issue.

Michelle Kinsey Bruns

Like any private online service, Facebook also has a right to set terms of use and a responsibility to shareholders to meet users' needs. Some 60,000 tweets to the campaign's #fbrape hashtag made clear that violently misogynistic content was doing damage to Facebook's relationship with its user base.

Facebook makes thousands of decisions a day about what sort of content is acceptable on its site. Soraya Chemaly, one of the founders of this month's campaign along with activist groups Women Action and the Media and Everyday Sexism, told me that Facebook's moderation of ads or content like breastfeeding photos "put them in a position of interpreting this content and deciding what would stay up and what would not. ... It became evident that there was a double standard when it came to gender."

Viewed in that light, Facebook's response to the activist campaign signals not a radical change of agenda but rather a refinement to its existing content policies. Yet its significance for women can't be overstated. The acceptability of speech glorifying sexual or other violence against women is a sure measure of the degree to which women's full participation -- on a website, in any public space or in a society -- is welcome.

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Facebook is to be commended for committing to take additional steps to ensure that women are as welcome on its service as men. Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and the rest would do well to follow in Facebook's footsteps.

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