Social Justice: Facebook (Finally) Bends to the Vocal Social Mob

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ArCompany’s Sunday Social Justice series follows the ramifications of the vocal, social mob on topics ranging from criminal justice to questionable business practices and the (sometimes unfair) backlash they are faced with.

We both respect and fear the power of the social mob and its ability to whip up an anonymous band of social vigilantes almost instantly to attack its perceived villain.

This week we consider the effect that the social coalition of Women, Media, Action (WAM), Everyday Sexism,  activist Soraya Chemaly and 15 brave advertisers had, finally, on forcing the heavyweight of Social Networks to make some much needed changes in its policy against misogynist speech on its platform.

Please note that because of this highly sensitive topic, there will be images and language that is offensive; it is necessary to tell the story.

Facebook’s History of Ignoring a Certain Kind of Hate Speech

If you’ve been active on Facebook for some time you’ve probably come across memes, images, or even jokes that you deem inappropriate and don’t want seen on your wall.

Perhaps you’ve even had someone create an impostor account for you or a friend, and you’ve had to report it to Facebook.

Usually, Facebook is very quick to remove impostor accounts; on hate speech there seems to be a very mixed reaction to what speech Facebook deems hateful, and what they consider ‘free.’

I once reported a blatantly racist cartoon and Facebook removed it within 24 hours.

On 3 separate occasions I reported what was clearly misogynistic imagery that targeted me personally, and on all 3 occasions I received the standard:

Status: Content Not Removed Details: Thank you for your report. We carefully reviewed the photo you reported, but found it doesn’t violate our community standard on hate speech so we didn’t remove it.

I am not alone; there are many examples of Facebook ignoring not only misogynist posts, but ones supporting violence against women. covered one in November of 2012  that is frankly mind-blowing.

Creep shot

When  a user reported the Facebook Page ‘Creepshots,’ for a picture of a woman wearing a short dress with the caption “begging to be raped,’ they got the same standard reply I received.

The infuriation that a canned response to such horrible posts is understandable, and because one cannot call up and discuss anything with the gatekeepers at Facebook, the classic ‘Man vs Deaf Automation’ syndrome ensues.

Facebook’s Double Standards

As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, Facebook does not rest solidly on a ‘free speech’ stance and allow ALL hate speech to flow freely.  Back in 2010 the network garnered coverage  as they worked with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to reduce the amount of hate speech and bullying.

As stated from my own personal experience, I have seen Facebook remove racists posts.  They’re own policy covers hate speech here:

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.

It’s that ‘distinguishes between serious and humorous speech’ where Facebook tries to have it both ways; hate speech is not grey or blurry, it is clear, except apparently, in the cases of misogyny on Facebook.

Facebook Double Standards

A Clear Case of Facebook Confusion

I was raised by my grandmother, Doris Chapman McCloskey, an outspoken woman in a time when that trait was not necessarily acceptable.  She used to tell me:

The world is very often black and white, but a lot of people want it to be grey so that they don’t have to make the tough choices.

Facebook has been trying to keep it grey, with both their own policy and their actions.  Take the case of the Facebook Page Breastfeeding/Mama Talk.

The page was started by Kristy Kemp to support women who breastfeed after she experienced a strong negative reaction herself when she fed her baby in public.

Not only were pictures of breastfeeding removed from her page, but she was blocked from it first for 24 hours, and then for 3 days. When the incident kicked up a firestorm with press coverage by the local Fox affiliate, Facebook changed its mind and apologized.

Society itself has experienced an evolution in its consideration of public breastfeeding, so perhaps Facebook deserves a pass, but before you grant it, consider the pages that they have allowed to stay up, with titles like:

Fly kicking sluts in the Uterus


Violently Raping Your Girlfriend Just for Laughs


I Kill Bitches Like You

Not to mention:

Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice

You can read more about the stomach churning content of those pages on the Democrat Herald, but the point is clear: Facebook had one policy for ‘standard hate speech,” and another for violence against women speech.

How has Sandberg Leaned In to this Debate?

I am a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization and book, and frankly I’ve been disappointed with how many of my women friends have reacted harshly to the movement without even reading the book.

In it, Sandberg illustrates the challenges she personally experienced in her career because of her gender.  She pushes women to speak up and ask for what they deserve, want and need.

From reading the book and hearing her talks I know that Sandberg and Zuckerberg have a strong mutual respect; the question for me was almost instinctive:

Where does Sheryl Stand?

I wasn’t the only one questioning Sandberg specifically.  John Rains created a  petition directed squarely at the Facebook COO that gathered over 225K signatures.

There is also Facebook Page entitled Sherly Sandberg lean In and Remove Misogyny from FB.

As far as I can find, Sheryl Sandberg has yet to weigh in on the Facebook Misogyny debate.  I realize that she is the COO, but as the leader of a movement about leaning in and speaking up, her lack of action is tremendously disappointing and frankly, cowardly.

One of the posts I read as I researched this topic by a blogger called Elizaveta  states it more clearly than I could by quoting Martin Luther King:

There comes a time when silence is betrayal.

The Social Coalition that Changed Facebook’s Mind

Facebook has been dealing with complaints against misogynistic posts for years, but when  Women, Action, Media (WAM), Everyday Sexism and  Soraya Chemaly created a campaign to put serious public pressure on the the network to finally change its stance, things changed.

Not only did the group pen a letter to build pressure that was signed by 60 feminist groups, WAM also built up a frightful list of examples of misogynist posts. They didn’t stop there, but went after brands whose ads appeared next to the egregious content.   Over 5,000 emails and  60,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag #fbrape

Both Dove and Nationwide issued apologies, and 15 companies, including Nissan and Zipcar,  pulled advertising in support of the campaign.

Facebook loses advertisers

Facebook Reacts, Eventually

Initially Facebook’s reaction was that they would review their policies.  They blamed it on its ‘systems’ and said they needed to do a better job.  Their quote to Huffington Post UK sums it up:

There is no place on Facebook for hate speech or content that is threatening, or incites violence, and we will not tolerate material deemed to be genuinely or directly harmful. We try to react quickly to remove reported language or images that violate our terms and we try to make it very easy for people to report questionable content using links located throughout the site. However, as you may expect in any diverse community of more than a billion people, we occasionally see people post distasteful or disturbing content, or make crude attempts at humour. While it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies. We do require that any such page be clearly marked – so users are aware that the content may be in poor taste. In many instances, we may also require a page administrator to display their real name on the page, or the page will be removed.

There Facebook is again, trying to walk a line that should never be walked between ‘crude humor,’ and posts that ‘incite violence.’

Marne Levine, Facebook’s VP of Global Public Policy, wrote a post that included this statement:

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. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want.  In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria. We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will.

That paragraph is followed with bullet points outlining the changes Facebook will make.

Facebook Does Right

Facebook is easy to hate; dominant and hugely successful, many of its users feel almost trapped in the network because, well, it’s where everyone else in their social network is.  But in this case, even though it took the pressure of a campaign, Facebook is saying the right things.

WAM is pleased, and quotes both Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism:

We have been inspired and moved beyond expression by the outpouring of energy, creativity and support for this campaign from communities, companies and individuals around the world. It is a testament to the strength of public feeling behind these issues.

and Soraya Chemaly as being satisfied with the results.

It is because Facebook has committed to having policies to address these issues that we felt it was necessary to take these actions and press for that commitment to fully recognize how the real world safety gap experienced by women globally is dynamically related to our online lives.

Most poignant was the quote by Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of WAM:

We are reaching an international tipping point in attitudes towards rape and violence against women. We hope that this effort stands as a testament to the power of collaborative action.

Let’s hope that Friedman is right. Getting Facebook on board was a huge step in the right direction.

20 thoughts on “Social Justice: Facebook (Finally) Bends to the Vocal Social Mob

  1. Amy thank you and well done.  I was speechless that FB would allow this to happen.  Had just about given up on people doing the right thing.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      prosperitygal Hey there Michele, me too. But then again, not really because I’d witnessed it first hand.  One thing Sandberg is right on is that MEN must join in the conversation too if Sexism, and for that Misogyny, are going to be erased from ‘normal’ society.
      Once again I am left wishing that I could be a speck in the C-suite’s offices, especially hers, when this firestorm was raging.  And I TOTALLY forgot my point about how few women (2) there are in the upper echelon of Facebook.

  2. bobledrew says:

    This is strong stuff. And FB needs to CONTINUE to be held to account. I think that one of the problems with the leanness of companies like FB is that there’s not enough corporate resources to deal effectively with this sort of stuff. That is in NO way to be interpreted as an excuse for FB or any of the other companies that work that way. 
    There are responsibilities that companies have to their users. And FB has at the very least been inconsistent on living up to those responsibilities. 
    Also, at the very least, the actions of FB re violence against women and against breastfeeding advocates create a perception of juvenile and casual misogyny. They need to continue to act to destroy that perception, and we need to continue to stay on them. 
    Good stuff.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      bobledrew Thanks Bob, and I’m in total agreement.  It IS very clear that Facebook took certain types of hate speech very seriously…. I don’t believe for a second that the fact that misogynist posts stayed up due to a ‘system failure;’ it was a DECISION – as the one quote clarifies where they chalk some of it up to ‘crude humor.’  
      The reality is that in many ways Facebook reflects society, and we have not stomped out the misogyny that exists in plain sight.  I am deeply disappointed in Sheryl Sandberg. No, it is not fair to put it entirely in her lap, but with great power comes great responsibility, and she put herself atop that LeanIn throne – no one else did.

  3. This is the kind of five-star work that ought to be published in a national magazine, Amy. You need to be thinking about how this piece can be reshared in BusinessWeek or other influencer publication. The work you’re doing is mind blowing; the time you took to research and publish this piece is extraordinary.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Well I’ll be. That just made my night.  The reality is that every time I write I think about how easy it is compared to the old days… we don’t even have to leave our desks. Google searches. A few Hangouts, and we can decipher what happened.  Old school writers had to bust their rump…. not that I am a writer, just a blogger.

      • AmyMccTobin Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Are you going to make my hair uncurl? “not that I’m a writer, just a blogger.” Uhmm, really?
        It’s just like the comment I got — are you a blogger who wrote a book or an author? What the frick is the difference? (There vulgarity in check.)
        Not sure how you can’t put yourself in the “writer” category with this indepth and astonishingly #RockHot piece. Ms. bloggerwriter.
        That’s just got to be a blog post. I will write that quick since you jacked me up.

  4. Danny Brown says:

    Facebook is such a disappointment when it comes to matters like this. I reported some of the images on that Creepshots page, as much for the copy around the image as the image itself. And got their stock reply:
    Thanks for your recent report of a potential violation on Facebook. After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
    Learn more about what we do and don’t allow by reviewing the Facebook Community Standards:
    Give us feedback to let us know how we are doing:
    A couple of years back, I asked about Holocaust denial groups and some of the hate speech and rhetoric they were spewing. Same thing.
    Despite this reversal around these abhorrent rape pages, I can’t help but feel it’s just a very small ripple in the bigger uselessness picture that is Facebook’s ToS.

    • jeffespo says:

      Danny Brown One of the issues with Facebook is it’s size and scale along with their views on the 1st amendment. They rely on the community to help build up and police it. A page needs to get reported a number of times to get pushed to the front of the review cue. Once there, if a number of folks get on board marking a page as offensive or spam, it can get taken down very quickly. Case in point a few months back there was a Boston Bombings Meme page that was using pictures of a co-worker’s roommate at one of the Boston hospital, recovering from injuries, on some sick memes. It is just a matter of leveraging the systems and the levers the have in place.

      • Danny Brown says:

        jeffespo Oh, I get that completely mate. The issue is, there are some things that are against the law in certains states and provinces, globally. A social network taking a blase approach to law-breaking is flawed from any viewpoint.

        • AmyMccTobin says:

          Danny Brown jeffespo And to jump in – these misogynist images WERE reported, repeatedly.  Facebook went so far as to try to classify some of them as ‘crude humor.’  NOT what they did with Anti-gay or Racist posts.  There was a double standard.

  5. NancyCawleyJean says:

    Amazing article. Wonderful to see that some people will continue to pursue what is right. And Facebook should not be making decisions that are clearly double standards.

  6. Devonwjiqy says:


  7. NancyCawleyJean says:

    Soulati TY for the RT Jayme! #FF for all your fab #mktg info and all around good nature!

  8. AmyMccTobin says:

    seanmcginnis Hey Mr… what day in JUNE are you available to eat lamb chops in Florida?

  9. […] for the many frustrations Facebook lays at the feet of its users.  A couple of months ago in a post for this series, we were  harshly critical of Sandberg’s obvious and disappointing silence on the very […]

  10. […] HJ: Can you respond to the recent Facebook relenting to extreme pressure from interest groups and their campaign against Mysogyny on the Platform? […]

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