Facebook hate speech should have advertisers running

It’s not good enough for companies to say they can’t control where their ads appear

The Facebook smartphone application. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters.

The Facebook smartphone application. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters.

Thu, May 23, 2013, 13:04

A woman lies, her neck twisted, her limbs askew, at the foot of a staircase. Taken from the top of the stairs, the picture comes with the following admonishing, all-caps caption: “Next time, don’t get pregnant.”

Welcome to Facebook. Appearing to the right of this ode to domestic violence, in one of the screenshots doing the rounds on Twitter, is an ad for Dove, of the “campaign for real beauty” fame.

Which ads appear depends on who is doing the looking. An Irish person viewing that particular page might see ads for the National Lottery and the Guinness Storehouse (as I did). On another much- tweeted screenshot of the same image, Pringles asks “what superpower would you like at your fingertips?”

Let’s see. The superpower that rids the world of domestic violence memes – and domestic violence itself – would be nice.

An open letter to Facebook by a large coalition of groups including Women, Action & the Media, the Everyday Sexism Project and End Violence Against Women has called on the social media company to recognise content that trivialises or glori- fies violence against girls and women as hate speech.

They also want Facebook to train moderators to recognise and remove such hate speech and understand how online harassment interacts with a real- world pandemic of violence against women.

Pages appearing on Facebook at the time the open letter was written included – and I apologise in advance, but this is what we’re dealing with – Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus, Kicking Your Girlfriend in the Fanny because She Won’t Make you a Sandwich and Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs.

Pages like these tend to survive the moderation process, the letter asserts, while Facebook regularly removes pictures of women breastfeeding.

In its own community guidelines, Facebook prohibits hate speech and regularly removes content that is violently racist, homophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic. However, a commonly deployed disclaimer that gender-based hate speech is really humour in disguise, “literally treats violence targeting women as a joke”, the campaigners note.

While they wait for Facebook to respond, activists are politely asking advertisers on Twitter under the #FBRape hashtag if they are quite okay with the manner in which their ads are displayed on pages dedicated to misogynistic jokes and images – at least some of which have been known to depict actual real-world crimes.

Depressingly, in a novel “we don’t want women customers” approach, some companies have responded that it is not their problem and they can’t control where their ads appear on Facebook anyway. Stationery-seller Vistaprint, for example, replied that its ads were “targeted at individual users, not tied to the content or pages created by users” and advised users to click “report” on offensive content.

Its response indicated the company had not properly read the campaigners’ letter, which documented Facebook’s inaction in cases when these pages were reported, while its “helpless us” shrug only proved the campaigners’ central point.

If companies cannot control where their ads appear on Facebook, and Facebook continues to merrily make cash off the back of hate speech, why not consider stopping advertising on Facebook altogether?

After all, if a newspaper was to insert a company’s ad next to some obscene classifieds taken out by the pro-rape fraternity, the company wouldn’t just complain about inappropriate placing, it would cut all ties with the newspaper until it stopped accepting such classifieds.

The internet is not the only place where advertisers play brand reputation roulette and lose. Walls between editorial and advertising departments in print media mean unfortunate ad placements do happen – the annals of Buzzfeed are littered with them. Nobody wins when a report that “1 in 4 women will be beaten by husbands” sits right atop a “treat him this Father’s Day” ad for Asda.

On television, too, ads can take on new meanings and levels of offence depending on the context. Channel 4 discovered this to its cost when its broadcast of the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo inadvertently cut from a disturbing rape scene to a sponsorship sting for Phones4U that began with a shot of woman in bed saying “I’m faking it, can I upgrade?”

Not only did Channel 4 apologise for what the broadcasting regulator Ofcom ruled was an “unsuitable juxtaposition”, but the sequence was, ultimately, a bad fluke. On the other hand, it appears to be Facebook policy to profit from swathes of content that belittles and revels in violence against women.

Advertisers have the right to say “it’s nothing to do with us”, but their customers have the right to judge them for that ignorance too.

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