In a remarkable display of the speed at which social media activism can work, online feminist organizers managed, after only a week’s worth of work, to get Facebook to promise to revise its approach toward misogynist hate speech. The efforts started on May 21, when Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman, and Laura Bates wrote an open letter on Huffington Post to Facebook demanding that the company take anti-woman hate speech on its site as seriously as it does racist hate speech and images deemed too sexual, which are routinely banned (including breastfeeding pictures). After a week of an email and Twitter campaign, Facebook responded late yesterday with an openly apologetic letter and a promise to do better:
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. 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 In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria. We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will.
This is good news, because things had gotten ugly. Women Action & the Media collected some examples of offensive posts, which included images of women who had been murdered, young girls being raped, and pictures of women tied up or assaulted with “joking” encouragement for men to rape and beat women. In one case, the example (a picture of a murdered woman with the caption, “I like her for her brains”) included a response from Facebook saying that the image didn’t violate its terms of service.
As gross as that all is, the quick response from Facebook is part of a sea change in the tech world and the larger geek culture around it (subcultures like video gaming and sci-fi conventioneering). These have all been male-dominated spaces for a long time, where women have silently endured sexism as the price of doing business. But the past couple of years have seen a massive wave of women (and male allies) fighting back. Anita Sarkeesian raised more than 25 times what she asked for to create a series on sexism in video games, the second installment of which was released yesterday. Feminists are speaking out—and getting massive amounts of attention—in Wired, Business Insider, and Net Magazine. And while the people who work in tech are still mostly male, the consumers of social media are majority female, a truth that is rapidly changing the image of the person we collectively imagine as the computer nerd who can’t be pried from a screen. All of this is reflected in Facebook’s newly serious approach to anti-woman hate speech online, and the speed at which the company changed its tune.