A WAMU series explores gun violence and aggressive policing in the nation's capital.
Many social media companies maintain strict rules prohibiting hate speech among their users. But feminists have long complained that Facebook moderators turn a blind eye to content that glorifies violence against women. So a coalition of tech-savvy activists devised a social media campaign to pressure the site by targeting its advertisers. Last week Facebook pledged to review its policies and update training. Kojo talks with Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project.
- Laura Bates The Everyday Sexism Project
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why the bubba plan for the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian may never, well, bubble up. But first, graphic pictures were circulating around Facebook newsfeeds. They involved women badly beaten or unconscious and included captions both encouraging violence against women and celebrating rape.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile Facebook frequently takes down photos involving any combination of female nudity, racist remarks or religious hate speech. The site's content moderators continually gave a pass to images and statements involving violence against women. But two weeks ago, a coalition of women's advocacy groups decided they had had enough, launching a campaign that called on Facebook to stop allowing gender hate speech on the site, and Facebook listened, promising to review its content policies.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to explore how a coalition of activists won its cause against the world's biggest social network is Laura Bates. Laura Bates started The Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogs stories of sexism, and is one of the groups behind the recent Facebook campaign. She joins us by phone from London. Laura Bates, thank you for joining us.
MS. LAURA BATESThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIIn the past, we've talked about free speech on the Web. We've explored how social media companies like Facebook craft censorship policies. Your project, Everyday Sexism, has put the spotlight on Facebook's tendency to allow content that promotes violence against women. Why do you think this content regularly made it through Facebook's filters?
BATESWell, I think it had something to do with our wider cultural acceptance of misogyny, even though violence misogyny and jokes about things like rape and domestic violence have been whilst other forms of prejudice have become extremely socially unacceptable, quite rightly, like anti-Semitism or racism, for example. There's still a tendency to think that sexism isn't a big deal. It's still something that seems to be socially acceptable to joke about.
BATESAnd I think that Facebook's content policies previously raised a kinda marker for that. It was a way of sort of magnifying what we were seeing on a global level.
NNAMDII'd you'd like to join this conversation, you can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you found offensive content on Facebook? Did you report it? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reddit is called the front page of the Internet, but Facebook is just the front page of your social circle, meaning that many people probably have not seen those disturbing statements about rape and other violence against women in their newsfeeds. How pervasive is this content?
BATESIt was extremely pervasive that's probably because it was an issue that had been building and building for actually over two years. This content was becoming so prolific it was being widely shared. It was being liked by people which meant that it would pop up in your newsfeed or your timeline regardless of whether you chose to like or not. I mean with the we're hearing on The Everyday Sexism Project from parents who are extremely distressed that this content was showing up without any kinda of provocation in the timeline of their children aged 13 or 14 getting these very graphic images of beating women with slogans saying things like next time don't get pregnant or suggesting that women should or desires to be raped.
BATESSo it was really kinda becoming very pervasive, and it was cropping up in groups Facebook, not necessarily groups but sort of related to this content tool, but atheist groups, joke groups, it was very much becoming very pervasive.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Laura Bates. She started The Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogs stories of sexism. It's one of the groups behind the recent Facebook campaign. She joins us by phone from London. You too can join us by phone by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think Facebook should censor misogynistic material? 800-433-8850. Moderators following Facebook content policies have banned pictures of women breastfeeding, artwork that involves female nudity, even a New Yorker cartoon of Adam and Eve. Why do you think that kind of content does not fit into Facebook's understanding of free speech but this other kind of graphic content does?
BATESWell, I think it got derived from sort of puritanical Bible Belt need to control women's bodies. Often, that kind of content, it was being posted by women themselves, pictures of women breastfeeding, images of women feeling empowered using their own bodies, for example, for political protests, as in the case of, the activist whose protest was removed by Facebook, or again, artistic representations of women's bodies so a message that we were getting very strongly foreign that double standard in Facebook's moderation policy was very much the same double standard that we see across society that when women's bodies are being sexualized and objectified by others for other's benefit and often through the eyes of men, that's something socially acceptable and very normal. But women chose to use their own bodies or want to display their own bodies, that's something that is often criticized, censored, shut down.
NNAMDITime seems to move faster on social media sites. A week after The Everyday Sexism campaign launched, Facebook responded, said it would review its content policies. Feminists have long complained to Facebook about misogynistic content. So how did a weeklong campaign catch Facebook's attention?
BATESWell, it's very much to say that this was a worldwide campaign. It wasn't just Everyday Sexism. It was co-founded by Soraya Chemaly, rights and activists, and Jaclyn Friedman of Women, Action and the Media. And I think the three of us teaming up like that and then getting the whole world involved, 60,000 people tweeted about the campaign, 5,000 people emailed advertisers and 100 women and human rights organizations from around the world got behind us.
BATESAnd I think it was the sheer power of collective action, and so many people sending the message loud and clear to Facebook. Things are changing. This is no longer acceptable in a world in which one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. It is no longer socially acceptable to make jokes about rape and domestic violence anymore than it is to make racist slurs or jokes about homophobia.
NNAMDIYou mentioned how many people tweeted. How were the tools in another kind of social media, like Twitter, helpful for a campaign against Facebook?
BATESThey were enormously helpful because they enabled us to connect with activists and women around the world who felt passionately about this who otherwise might not have known that it was happening, but they also enabled us to contact advertisers very directly, very quickly and perhaps most importantly very publicly. I mean I think in the days before social media, it would have been very easy for the letter of complaints or even 10 or 100 to go quietly in the shredder at a company that didn't like what people were complaining about.
BATESBut now because of Twitter, these images of graphic content and women beaten and battered and bruised were flying around the Internet with the logos of these very high-profile companies clearly recognizable beside them, and I think that really forced those companies into action.
NNAMDIWe'll get to the companies in a second, but first, to the phones with Vic in Dulles, Va., awaits us. Vic, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICYes. Hi. My question is about the people who are liking this kind of I mean trying to focus on Facebook censors that are misogynistic for things and images. Who are the people who are liking this crap, and what is, you know, what is Facebook going to do about that?
NNAMDILaura Bates, in case you couldn't hear Vic, he says who are the people who are posting and liking these postings, and what is Facebook doing about them?
BATESWell, it's difficult to say an exact demographic. One of the things that was very shocking to us was the sheer volume of people who were liking these things. And I think that one of the issues comes back to this idea of cultural acceptability that the sheer volume of people liking these things online suggests that it is very acceptable under this guise of banter. And often, I think people like and share these things because it's something so normalized that they don't really think twice about what they're doing.
BATESThey don't really stop and think about what that means to look at that picture of a woman and what exactly it is they're really endorsing. And that's why I think it's such an important step for Facebook, such a very influential company when it comes to social norms. So it's got involved in, said that isn't something that we will accept and tolerate any longer. And, of course, it's true those people will go elsewhere in the Internet.
BATESYou know, we're not naive. We don't think that this is the last frontier. But Facebook is almost in its cultural reach and its ability to shape what we accept and consider normal in society. And I really hope that this is a kind of global tipping point in attitudes towards rape and domestic violence that just like our attitudes to other forms of prejudice have moved over the years. So those things have quite rightly become unacceptable. I really think we're seeing the same progression now in terms of misogynistic attitudes.
NNAMDIVic, thank you very much for your call. And allow me to ask our listeners: Do you think conversations on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter affect society's values and beliefs offline? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there, and simply send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Laura Bates, while these violent images prevail online, some say the content did not lead to any violence offline. To what extent is the content on Facebook in your view a reflection of society's values and beliefs?
BATESI think there is this strong attachment to what we consider to be acceptable to joke about and see as a form of banter and something that's OK to boast about. So, of course, it's not as simple as saying that people would look at these images and content and then go out and commit crimes. Of course, we're not suggesting anything so direct. It's a more subtle link. It's about considering what people start to find so pervasive that it leaps over into our values and our ideas about what's acceptable.
BATESAnd one of the things that we know is that a very great number of young women particularly who suffer rape and sexual assault so unable to come forward and report what's happened to them, either because they're ashamed or embarrassed because they think that they wouldn't be taken seriously. And when you see that on social networking site these kind of images joking about rape and boasting about it and high-fiving about it are flying around in this way, you can see how that would contribute to a young girl's feeling that society doesn't take rape and sexual assault seriously, particularly when as in recent cases we've seen actual incidents of rape and sexual assault are, in some cases, being shared and spread on social networking sites.
NNAMDIWell, you've implied the answers on my next question, but I'll ask it anyway because Facebook is not creating this content. Facebook works as moderator of content that's already on the site. Do you think the culture behind this kind of content will be affected by increased censorship?
BATESI hope so because I think it sends a very, very clear message about what isn't acceptable. And I hope that by driving this on such a very mainstream platform will make a difference in the norms that people are being socialized into as they start using the platform very young and as they come up through it. And, of course, we weren't suggesting, as you say, Facebook didn't create this content, and we're not suggesting that they were to blame for its creation or even that they should be somehow searching it out or anything like that.
BATESThe issue that prompted us to start the campaign was very clearly that when these very violent misogynistic content such as pictures of rape and domestic violence were being reported to Facebook, the moderators at that stage were not taking that content down. And it's really important that that was within the context of a site that already did choose to moderate and have policies clearly banning other forms of hate speech quite rightly like racism or homophobia.
BATESSo within that context, I think it is very important for them to acknowledge and then to have the knock-on effect of helping others to acknowledge that gender hate speech absolutely ought to fall into the same category and treated in the same way as those other forms of prejudice.
NNAMDIOur guest is Laura Bates, who started The Everyday Sexism Project. That project catalogs stories of sexism. It's one of the groups behind the recent Facebook campaign. Here is James in Gaithersburg, Md. James, your turn.
JAMESYes, sir. How are you doing?
JAMESOne thing I have noticed is my being an artist, I can post -- I have my profile. It's kept private -- I can post images of artwork that I have drawn, like figure drawings. And they've been taken down off of Facebook, but you can have all these other images like the speaker is talking about and you can have this hate speech. But that's not moderated. But my simple stuff that -- I mean, like I'm doing in school is taken down, but I see -- like I said, I see these images...
NNAMDISo if you say if you post a nude painting that you've done in school, it gets taken down?
NNAMDIOK. Allow me to have Laura Bates respond.
BATESThat's -- yeah, absolutely that's very much what we were hearing, and that was the double standard within which we decided that we had to act because if Facebook was choosing to censor and take down those kinds of artistic representations of women's bodies, then it was ludicrous to suggest within that context that twisted, beaten, often semi-naked images of women that are being sort of closed in this guise of banter about rape and domestic violence was acceptable. So, yes, that is something that we'd heard, and that was very much part of why we decided to mount this campaign.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, James. You know, one advocacy group tweeted to an advertiser, "If reporting pro-rape, pro-violence Facebook pages work, we would not be asking for your help." Are advertisers on social media sites inevitably going to have, in your view, to take sides on political debates like this one?
BATESWell, I'm not sure that I would necessarily categorize this as a political debate. I mean, there's been quite a lot of talk about along those lines recently since this happened. And I think it's very important to say that this is not a case of some sort of very specific campaign group on a particular issue taking issue with something. This is a universal issue. This is something that applies to women around the world and has a very direct impact on men around the world as well.
BATESThis is a universal issue of human rights. It was a very, very specific issue. So I don't think it necessarily means that some people have implied that this will open the floodgates for anybody and everybody to sort of try and lobby that particular cause. But I think the reason that that message was tweeted to the advertiser was it was making the point that we had made that Facebook wasn't listening to its users.
BATESAnd that was why we eventually felt compelled to start contacting advertisers because when those pages were being reported, it wasn't hurting Facebook to decide that they didn't want to take them down. So I think it was really important that the advertisers were involved, and I think that their reactions were very significant because those who were extremely supportive of the campaign, like Nissan and Nationwide, immediately received a huge amount of praise and gratitude from customers.
BATESAnd I think that will be something really important for businesses to be aware of in the future going forward that they do have to take responsibility for where their adverts appear in just the same way that customers would hold them responsible if their adverts appeared in a newspaper or magazine that held content like this. It does matter. And so I think that, perhaps, they will have to take more of an active stunt in being aware of exactly what is that they're signing up to.
NNAMDIHere is John in Baltimore, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. I guess I'd like to challenge this whole idea of speech being, you know, hate filled. And first of all, I have a real problem with the term hate speech. The idea that if I or someone says something offensive and is automatically equated with hate, I think, is ridiculous. What we do when we end up having this sort of blanket cultural censorship is, you know, we don't necessarily change attitudes.
JOHNWhat we do is we drive them underground. And, you know, people that are racist or sexist or whatever it is you wanna think about, they don't necessarily change. What they do is, you know, one face has a smile on it and the other face says what they really think. Personally, I would rather know what or I would rather wanna know what people really think as opposed to what they simply want me to think.
JOHNAnd the other issue is that, you know, what ends up happening is this results in this sort of overreach. We're now, you know, we're self-policing ourselves, and we're not really getting to the heart of the matter. We end up with the F word, the N word and this word.
NNAMDIOK. Allow me, before I go to Laura Bates, to ask you what do you see as the heart of the matter.
JOHNI think the heart of the matter is that, you know, we change. Our attitudes change, our beliefs change. We don't change them through the words we use. We don't change them through, you know, denying other people the opportunity to use or not use words. It changes, and change is slow and change happens, and progress happens that way. I don't think...
NNAMDIOK. Allow me to have Laura Bates respond because I'm not quite sure how you think change happens. But here's Laura Bates.
BATESWell, first of all, in terms of the issue of hate speech and choosing what to censor, that's an issue to take up with Facebook about their entire policy of whether they decide to censor anything or not. What we were very specifically targeting here was the fact that within the context that they do, I'm sorry, but they do choose to define things as hate speech. That is the language that Facebook itself chooses to use. And they do choose to censor what they consider unacceptable.
BATESWe felt it was important to send a message that these forms of prejudice, whatever you want to call them, should be taken as seriously as those other forms. And in terms of this idea that, you know, it's very important not to drive things underground, I think it's very important to be aware that what might not be openly represented is that women might be being driven off these platforms because they feel unsafe of operating in and contributing to a space which is extremely hostile to women if this kind of content is allowed to flourish.
BATESSo it's also important that consider their free speech, the free speech of women who are increasingly made to feel unsafe in public places. And finally, in terms of the idea of policing, I understand your point, and I think it's an optimistic one to hope that if this content is allowed to be online, then it enables us to have a debate and a discussion about it and hopefully, to kind of police it ourselves. But unfortunately, that is not what we were seeing happening on these pages.
BATESThese pages showing these battered and bruised women were full of comments, like, LOL, I would've made another hole in her, or I would've fetched my gun, and things which are much worse and very difficult to repeat. So I think that in reality, what we were seeing was just a proliferation of hatred and misogyny, not anything being done or dealt with.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. Laura Bates, a lot of people here has used the term Facebook moderators, and they're wondering, well, who are these moderators, and who trains them, and how are they trained? What were you able to find out about that during the course of this issue?
BATESWell, one of the things that we have been able to confirm with Facebook is that they will be retraining their moderators and that they will be re-evaluating the training that they use to make sure that their moderators are able to recognize violence against women and that they're able to recognize the difference in the way that men and women perceive their safety because of the real-life pandemic of violence against women and the impact that that has on our daily experiences.
BATESWe haven't been party to a huge amount of information about the process itself or where Facebook moderators are. I know that there are various articles about outsourcing and that some people have raised that as a cause to concern. That's something that I'm afraid I don't have a lot of information on.
BATESWhat I do know is that one of our central demands of our letter was that we asked Facebook, please, to make sure that their policy was changed and that their training would change to be implemented so that these moderators would actually be able to act very specifically on these issues. And we're absolutely thrilled that they have firmly agreed to that.
NNAMDILaura Bates, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDILaura Bates started the Everyday Sexism Project, which was one of the groups behind the recent Facebook campaign. The Everyday Sexism Project catalogues stories of sexism. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, why that bubble plan for the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian may never actually be a bubble. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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