Facebook Responds to Activist Concerns About Hate Speech

Facebook acknowledged yesterday that its systems have failed to effectively identify and remove hate speech, particularly in regards to gender-based issues. The announcement was made in response to pressure from feminist groups that want to ban a growing amount of text and images that promote violence against women. Facebook has promised to make a number of changes, including new employee training and measures of user accountability.

“The activists, who sent more than 5,000 e-mails to Facebook’s advertisers and elicited more than 60,000 posts on Twitter, also prompted Nissan and more than a dozen smaller companies to say that they would withdraw advertising from the site,” reports The New York Times. In response, Facebook “said it would review how it dealt with such content, update training for its employees, increase accountability — including requiring that users use their real identities when creating content — and establish more direct lines of communication with women’s groups and other entities.”

Pressure from women’s groups escalated last week when an open letter was published, requesting that Facebook execs “ban gender-based hate speech on your site.” The letter was signed by more than 100 activist groups. The collective is led by Women, Action & the Media (WAM!); Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, and writer and activist Soraya Chemaly.

In its letter, the groups call upon Facebook to take the following actions:
1) “Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.”
2) “Effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech.”
3) “Effectively train moderators to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men, in part due to the real-world pandemic of violence against women.”

The letter also states: “To this end, we are calling on Facebook users to contact advertisers whose ads on Facebook appear next to content that targets women for violence, to ask these companies to withdraw from advertising on Facebook until you take the above actions to ban gender-based hate speech on your site.”

By Tuesday evening, a petition on change.org had nearly 224,000 supporters.

“We thought that advertisers would be the most effective way of getting Facebook’s attention,” said Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action & the Media. “We had no idea that it would blow up this big. I think people have been frustrated with this issue for so long and feeling like that had no way for Facebook to pay attention to them. As consumers we do have a lot of power.”

In a detailed response posted by Facebook yesterday afternoon, VP of Global Public Policy Marne Levine writes that “Facebook’s mission has always been to make the world more open and connected” by allowing people to share ideas freely. Levine also notes that Facebook works “hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.”

While Facebook’s systems have failed to work as effectively as the company would like, Levine promises that change is underway: “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.”