War of Ideas

Facebook’s rape joke problem and America’s free-speech exceptionalism

Facebook has responded to an online campaign by activists as well as boycott threats by several advertisers by issuing a statement saying that it has failed to properly monitor gender-based hate speech, including posts, groups, and images that make light of or even glorify the rape, abuse, and murder of women. Women, Action and the ...

Facebook has responded to an online campaign by activists as well as boycott threats by several advertisers by issuing a statement saying that it has failed to properly monitor gender-based hate speech, including posts, groups, and images that make light of or even glorify the rape, abuse, and murder of women. Women, Action and the Media — one of the co-sponsors of the campaign — has rounded up some examples (very graphic, obviously) if you feel like lowering your opinion of humanity today. Facebook promised to review its guidelines and work with relevant groups to discuss how best to address the problem.

The online response — including from the sponsors of the campaign — seems mostly positive, though some question whether Facebook will actually follow through on any of this. What I haven’t seen yet is anyone defending this content on free-speech grounds. This is likely partly because there was a clear double standard in place: When a Gerhard Richter painting is considered offensive content but a photo of a bound women with the caption "tape her and rape her" is a-ok, clearly some standards are out of whack. 

But I was still struck by the difference between the response to this and the uproar over the "#unbonjuif" hashtag that appeared on French Twitter last year. To refresh you memory, after the anti-Semitic hashtag meaning "a good Jew" — as in "a good Jew is a dead Jew" — became the third most popular on French Twitter — following closely on the heels of #SiMonFilsEstGay ("if my son is gay") and #SiMaFilleRamèneUnNoir ("if my daughter brings home a black man") — the government took Twitter to court in an attempt to get the names of the offending tweeters and the country’s women’s rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem took to the pages of Le Monde to demand that Twitter respect the values of the French Republic by removing the offending tweets. 

Twitter tends to take more an absolutist stance on free speech than Facebook, even after some controversial recent policy changes. There’s so much hate speech on Twitter that researchers can map it. In this case, American civil libertarians immediately jumped to Twitter’s defense, praising the company’s stance on behalf of free-speech. When American writer Jason Farago praised Vallaud-Belkacem in the Guardian and suggested that American naively make a fetish out of the first ammendment he was immediately pilloried by U.S. bloggers. 

Of course, America is an outlier when it comes to free speech and hate crimes laws. Most democratic countries have much stricter hate speech laws. Periodic suggestions that the U.S. should take a more European approach to the issue tend not to get very far. In my view, the difference between the two cases highlights why the U.S. approach works better. Nobody is suggesting that the Facebook users posting this content be prosecuted or that congress legislate Facebook’s content. This is a private company revising it’s policies based on public pressure. A skeptic could also argue the opposite: a legal injunction might be more likely to get results as opposed to vague promises.

Which is not to say that the company is done with this issue.  As Alyssa Rosenberg argues, Facebook can’t just wait for a community consensus on what defines hate speech to emerge — at a certain point it just has to take an institutional stand on certain questions. Making that judgment call is particularly difficult for an American company that operates worldwide. The Innocence of Muslims video, Holocaust denial, criticism of Kemal Ataturk or the King of Thailand, Pussy Riot’s "Punk Prayer" are all considered unacceptable speech in some countries, but also examples of constitutionally protected speech in America. 

There’s certainly room for improvement in Facebook’s content monitoring — and reading about how the moderation process has worked thus far doesn’t exactly inspire confidence — but I also don’t envy the big social networks as they work through these issues. I am, however, glad that it’s the public and not the government putting pressure on them to do so. 

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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