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"Tape her and rape her" pic sparks broader Facebook response

Women's rights groups won a victory this week, after Facebook finally agreed to review its policy concerning hateful online material. The kerfuffle started when the social network refused to remove a picture advocating rape.

The offending image, which featured a woman with her mouth taped shut alongside the caption ‘tape her and rape her’, initially passed moderation at Facebook, which then refused to remove it.

Things seemed even worse than that, however. The image was originally shared online last Sunday by Susan Macaulay, who runs the Facebook page Amazing Women Rock. She had seen it on a Facebook page that claims to celebrate offensive humour, and wanted to bring it to people's attention. In her post, she asked if people thought this was acceptable content for Facebook. Facebook subsequently blocked her, she says, telling her that the picture violated its community standards. And yet the image continued running on the Facebook page where it was originally posted. Furthermore, when she reported the original picture through Facebook's official channels, she was told that it wouldn't be removed from the original page because it didn't violate its hate speech standards.

This isn’t the only image that it has failed to remove. Others include a picture of a woman who had apparently been shot in the head, with the caption "I like her for her brains".

But Facebook is happy to ban some content, such as educational ads about women’s health. The ad in question was created by the Women’s Media Center. It disputed claims that abortion can cause high instances of breast cancer, citing the National Cancer Institute, which points out that it doesn't (and it should know). But Facebook wouldn't run the ad earlier this month, telling the Media Center’s online manager Michelle Kinsey Bruns that it violated ad guidelines by advertising adult products or services.

So, on the one hand, Facebook lets pictures advocating rape run on sites that repeatedly post material inciting violence against women. On the other hand, it refuses to run an ad that could empower tens of thousands of them by dispelling health myths.

The problem here isn't simply the double standard. It isn't simply that Facebook failed to take down the image after Macaulay asked, but that it actively refused. 

Companies like Facebook have to deal with hundreds of thousands of requests for takedowns. It’s an enormously difficult job. But when disparities like these come to light, the policies themselves are clearly broken. That’s what people like writer and activist Soraya Chemaly and women’s rights groups are trying to address. 

“There’s nothing remotely trivial about that image,” said Chemaly in a TV interview this week, arguing that this is different to mere offensive humour. “The issue here is that the offense is the hatred against women. It’s the common representation of violence as entertaining.”

“Taking down pages does nothing because they will just proliferate again,” said Chemaly. It’s the policies themselves that need to change. 

Apparently, money talks. Earlier this week, major advertisers including Nissan pulled their advertisements from Facebook after their ads appeared alongside offensive posts like the tape her/rape her pic. Facebook stepped up. 

“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,” said Marne Levine, VP of global public policy for the social networking giant, in a post on the site.

“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.”

Facebook was founded in 2004, not 1804. How outdated can they be? In any case, what is the company going to do about it? Facebook said that it would work more closely and more formally with women’s rights and activist groups on identifying hateful content.

But perhaps more importantly, it is changing the rules themselves, updating its guidelines for evaluating content, while also updating its training for the teams that check into reports of hate speech. It will involve members of women’s rights groups in that process.

Women's rights groups welcomed the Facebook announcement. It's good to see the company acting on these issues, but depressing that it took a massive social media campaign and pressure from advertisers to get it interested. The "tape and rape her" image was bad enough, but some of the images captured from Facebook and shown by women's activist groups are far worse. 

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets



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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.