In an admission that its policies are not completely effective, Facebook has promised to review how it handles gender-based hate speech. The social networking giant made the promise after several feminist groups called the company out.
One group, Women, Action and the Media, published a letter that asks Facebook to take three actions: Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that the company will not tolerate this content; effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech; and 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.
"In a world in which hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted daily and where intimate partner violence remains one of the leading causes of death for women around the world, it is not possible to sit on the fence," the open letter said. "We call on Facebook to make the only responsible decision and take swift, clear action on this issue, to bring your policy on rape and domestic violence into line with your own moderation goals and guidelines."
Facebook Admits Shortcomings
Marne Levine, vice president of Global Public Policy at Facebook, responded in a blog post. Levine pointed out that Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities prohibits hate speech -- but also admitted that there are instances of offensive content, including distasteful humor, that are not hate speech according to its definition.
"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," Levine said.
"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 In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria....We need to do better -- and we will."
Hazards of Social Media
Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said this episode illustrates the challenges and "hazards" of social media.
"Facebook has a billion users and it's difficult to police everything being said on the site. The company has acknowledged its failure to do so in this instance," Sterling told us. "This also raises the longstanding issue of advertising on social sites and the fears of marketers who don't want to appear next to or be associated with controversial or offensive content."
Sterling also brought up the question of speech and censorship. He said while the content in question here -- gender-based hate speech -- is clearly offensive, there's a challenging issue around regulating speech and what can or cannot be said on Facebook.
"Facebook clearly doesn't want to get into dictating what people can say or creating too many rules around speech," Sterling said. "Accordingly there's no easy answer to the question of offensive speech on social sites. It's something that the community will have to help police and 'socially regulate.' "