Facebook, sexist? But didn’t its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, just tell us that all we women had to do to succeed was “lean in”?  Are we supposed to forget the frat-boy environment described in that Aaron Sorkin film, the Facebook movie?

But today I’m actually not talking about working conditions at Sandberg (and Mark Zuckerberg)’s company. I’m talking about the company that for s0 many people has created a kind of “other Internet”: to shop, to look at the news, to keep in touch with old friends. What to do when such a presence in our lives sprouts near-pathological sexist features? Just walk away?

By Scarface999 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scarface999 (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, some groundbreaking women had a better idea: to use a sort of jiu jitsu and startle the behemoth the way that martial art does —by using its own strengths against it. (At left, a jiu jitsu hold.)

The problem to be confronted is/was egregious: Facebook pages celebrating violence against women, including slogans like “Give women their rights—and lefts” and “How did you lose your virginity? Rohypnol.”  (At Buzzfeed, Ryan Frederick compiled some of the worst offenders; click on the link at your own risk.)

This was a job for media-jamming of the highest order and  Women, Action and Media (WAM) was ready. Spearheaded by Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, and the UK’s Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, WAM began its social-media pressure campaign with a simple Open Letter to Facebook.

Noting that Facebook’s pages appear only after being cleared by the company’s own staff and community “moderators” and passing a “Community Standard” barring hate speech, the letter demanded that Facebook stop enabling rape culture and appealed to companies whose advertisements were appearing beside the degrading words and images. They also started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #FBrape, and urged all of us to contact those advertisers—which included Dove, of that famous “You’re prettier than you think” ad campaign—and point out that Facebook had often removed positive images of women’s sexual power as  “offensive.” More than 60,000 tweets later, the damage done to Facebook’s reputation was clear.

As you probably know by now, the campaign worked, or at least began to. After dozens of advertisers responded, many by suspending their advertising on the site, Facebook released a statement that promised to update its policies, guidelines, and practices relating to hate speech; improve training for its content moderators; and increase accountability for creators of misogynist content.

“Facebook has also invited Women, Action & the Media, The Everyday Sexism Project, and members of our coalition to contribute to these efforts and be part of an ongoing conversation,” WAM said in a statement announcing the news,  applauded by many of us. “Facebook finally addresses its rape culture,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon, echoed by a recent New York Times editorial which also pointed out that “While these steps are helpful, Facebook should have acted right away when users first complained about the sexist content, as it does with other hate speech targeting, say, religious groups.”

Of course, some saw any effort to restrict content on the social network as tantamount to censorship—objections not dissimilar to those raised by comedians on TV and in clubs. Below, Jezebel‘s Lindy West spars with one such comedian on the subject. (Don’t read the comments on the video, though, unless you want to be reminded what rape culture looks like.)

But as Michelle Kinsey Bruns pointed out at CNN,  “Free speech here is a red herring at best. Facebook is a private enterprise, and the First Amendment quite simply is not the issue. Like any private online service, Facebook also has a right to set terms of use and a responsibility to shareholders to meet users’ needs. Facebook makes thousands of decisions a day about what sort of content is acceptable on its site.” In other words, money talks—this time in a good way, and in the interest of half the human race.

Not that the issue is simple. Most companies use near-automatic systems to generate online ads, and now will have to infuse some ethics into their algorithms. And as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out at The Atlantic, jiu jitsu can cut both ways, as when offended vide0-game fans sparked the removal of Feminist Frequencys “Tropes vs. Women” videos (which identify and analyze the hostility toward women that pervades many video games) by tagging the Frequency videos as inappropriate content.  “There is no “YouTube Community” or “Facebook Community” with an agreed-upon set of standards for what constitutes hate speech or inappropriate content. There are multiple communities that are in some cases violently at odds,” Rosenberg writes. “And if social media or technology companies want to keep some of their users–and as it seems, some of their advertisers–those companies may have to decide between their user communities when they come into conflict.” From fat-shaming to gay-bashing, there’s a lot to contend with. . None of those big meetings between Facebook and feminists have yet taken place, though most of the worst pages have been taken down. But I agree with Jessica Valenti that the process is more than encouraging. Once writing at The Nation that  “Feminists have done a lot to change policies, but not enough to change minds,” Valenti sees deep change afoot, saying that WAM’s campaign “is not just more proof that online activism is increasingly becoming feminism’s strong suit—from Facebook to Komen to transvaginal ultrasounds—but it also gives some hope that the culture is starting to shift around violence against women.”


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  • Roz Warren June 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    GREAT article. Thanks.

  • Tobysgirl June 6, 2013 at 10:41 am

    There is an easy way to distinguish good comedy from bad comedy. Who are they satirizing and making fun of? It’s been traditional to make fun of the powerless — the disabled, oppressed racial groups, women, etc — but memorable comics make fun of the powerful. It takes NO BALLS to make rape jokes; it takes being a real human being to make jokes at the expense of the wealthy and powerful.