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Feminists vs. Facebook

Feminists vs. Facebook

By Cathy Young - May 28, 2013

Feminist activists are on the warpath against Facebook, which, they claim, condones woman-hating even as it censors not only other hate speech but “indecent” images of breastfeeding mothers.  When I was asked to discuss this initiative on HuffPost Live WebTV,  I wasn’t sure where I stood.  The examples collected by the activists—such as a photo of a bloodied woman captioned, “She broke my heart.  I broke her nose”—are certainly repellent; the First Amendment is not at stake, since it’s a matter of private citizens using speech to pressure a corporation that already restricts content it deems offensive.  Yet a closer look suggests that the real agenda in this campaign is to whip up outrage about our culture’s alleged misogyny and flex muscle that could be used to intimidate and curtail legitimate speech.

A few facts: As it turns out, Facebook’s policy prohibits gender-based hate speech exactly the same as hate speech based on race, religion, or ethnicity; its only distinction is between “serious and humorous speech.”  On a social network with a billion users, some inconsistent or inadequate responses from moderators are inevitable. So far, the only evidence of sexist bias comes from anecdotal claims that member complaints about posts promoting violence against women are treated less seriously than reports of other inappropriate content.   Indeed, by now, all the images and pages cited by the activists have been taken down—though, predictably, some have popped up elsewhere.

It’s hardly news that the Internet is full of toxic people—attention-seeking trolls, crazies, bigots, or all of the above—posting vile stuff. Equally self-evident, not everyone agrees on what kind of speech, especially humor, should be out of bounds. 

Recently, some Internet feminists were up in arms about a parody in The Onion in which rapper Chris Brown lamented his breakup with singer Rihanna (whom he assaulted in 2009)  by saying that he had always hoped she was the woman he’d get to beat to death.   Others, such as feminist author and Slate.com editor Hanna Rosin, thought the outrage was misplaced: the satire was clearly meant to condemn, not celebrate or trivialize, battering.  (Most Slate commenters, including self-identified feminists, agreed.)  When I mentioned this in the HuffPost Live discussion, one of the organizers of the Facebook protest, Jaclyn Friedman of Women, Action and the Media, made it clear that she was among the offended.

Another leader of the initiative, Huffington Post columnist Soraya Chemaly, can be—to put it charitably—overzealous in her vigilance toward allegedly misogynistic expression. In an April column, Chemaly not only cheered a University of Connecticut student who had criticized the school’s revamped Husky Dog logo as too mean-looking and thus “terrifying” to women, but made a bizarre new charge: that UConn’s mascot was based on a “popular rape meme” on the Internet. 

Chemaly was referring to “Insanity Wolf,” a series of user-made graphics with texts describing extremely dumb and/or psychopathic acts—from “Wanna know how a flamethrower works? Come closer!” to “Grandpa has fallen and he can’t get up: Finish him”—on a background image of a snarling wolf.  A few of these deliberately outrageous jokes are about rape or domestic violence; others mock child abduction, cannibalism, murder of male victims and (male) self-injury, especially genital mutilation. “Insanity Wolf” is not a “rape meme,” and its only resemblance to the UConn Husky logo is that each features a canine head.

Who knows what else may qualify as “hate speech” for Chemaly and fellow activists?  On one feminist website, a list of “sexist incidents” in online “geek” communities includes an email list discussion in which a male heretic challenged feminist rape statistics and suggested that unwanted drunken sex does not equal violent rape. 

Of course there is some real, gross misogyny on the Web.  But how likely is it that a Facebook user would encounter such content on the site without actively looking for it?   For the record, its existence was news to me after several years of Facebook activity.   The now-removed pages were hardly popular: a Google cache shows that “Violently raping your friends, just for laughs” had a whopping 17 “likes”; “Kicking your girlfriend in the fanny because she won’t make you a sandwich” had 34.  (That’s one fewer than the still-existing “Dumping your boyfriend via castration”.)  On the HuffPost Live panel, Friedman and co-campaigner Laura Bates talked about women being driven off Facebook by sexism, but the evidence is, once again, strictly anecdotal.  Non-anecdotally, women were 57 percent of Facebook users last year.  Friedman also claimed that Facebook staff is “overwhelmingly male”; actually, in 2011, it was about one-third female, the best among the major technology companies.

Now, the feminist protest coalition is pushing advertisers to drop Facebook unless the company takes appropriate action.  The demands include training moderators to recognize gender-based hate speech (presumably as defined by radical feminists) and “to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men.”  The last part is especially revealing.  The activists clearly don’t want equal treatment for what could be considered gender-based hate speech against men, such as the Facebook page “Beating up your boyfriend to keep him in line” (which is still online and has over 16,000 “likes”)—or a feminist “satire” exhorting the average man not to rape women, which has over a thousand Facebook shares.

People have every right to speak out against bigotry and bashing—and to ask moderated websites to reject noxious content.  But letting ideologues dictate the boundaries of acceptable speech on a large area of the Internet is a very bad idea.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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