Haters Gonna Hate:
The Facebook Hate Speech Controversy
The Internet offers a forum for free expression and one billion users use Facebook as that forum. But what happens when free speech takes a darker turn to the degrading, harmful and hateful? What are the larger implications for advertisers whose paid media might appear alongside unsavory content?
Hate Speech on Facebook: The Controversy
Facebook provides Community Standards that outline the forms of content that can be reported and taken down, including any attacks based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”
In practice, moderation of questionable content on Facebook has not always been effective. For example, a photo of a woman breastfeeding would be promptly removed for violating guidelines, but images promoting rape or other violence against women would not. Last month, a coalition of women’s groups decided to do something about that.
WAM and the Campaign Against Facebook and its Advertisers
On May 21st, a coalition of women’s groups under the banner Women, Action & The Media (WAM), The Everyday Sexism Project, and author/activist Soraya Chemaly launched a campaign against Facebook pages that glorified or made light of violence and sexual degradation of women. It began with an Open Letter to Facebook calling on the social network to improve moderation on its site to ensure that gender-based hate speech is recognized and taken down in a timely manner. Additionally, the activists urged brands to pull their advertising from Facebook until the offensive content was removed and new monitoring standards were put into place.
Within a week of the open letter to Facebook published on May 21, the coalition of supporters grew to over 100 women’s movement and social justice organizations. It also generated over 60,000 tweets and 5,000 emails from participants. Approximately 15 companies removed their ads from Facebook, most notably Zipcar and Nissan UK. Meanwhile brands like Unilever’s Dove, whose ads appeared next to offensive images, have been working with the social network on appropriate solutions.
The Response from Facebook
On May 28th, Facebook announced a renewed commitment to improving its approach to hate speech and a promise to revise its best practices and community standards. They agreed to consult with WAM on ways to ensure the prompt removal of gender-based hate speech from the social network. At the same time, the controversy has raised additional concerns about threats to free speech.
MRY reached out directly to Facebook, and they have assured us that the situation has been escalated to the highest levels of the organization and outlined the following key takeaways:
- Much, if not all, of the content that has raised initial concerns from activists has been removed from Facebook.
- There are no ads currently running on the pages or groups that were initially referenced.
- More broadly, Facebook takes the issue of any form of hate speech and violence incredibly seriously, and its teams handle reports of controversial content on the site in a very thoughtful and careful way.
- They have reached out to the relevant community (WAM) to understand their view of controversial content, and have developed thoughtful policies to address/remove/signal such content.
- Facebook works constantly to improve its policies and procedures and strives for transparency in what they do.
Facebook also emphasized that this is as an ongoing process and, with over 1 billion users, a problem that may never be entirely “solved”. As long as Facebook is a platform where so many people share and connect, controversial content will always be a challenge that has to be managed responsibly and fairly, versus “fixed”.
What does this mean for brands?
A brand may not always have full control over the context in which its advertising appears, but measures should be taken to ensure its paid media does not appear alongside content that could damage its brand integrity. This includes monitoring campaigns and brand conversations for negative sentiment as well as having a dialog with the publisher in question when such a crisis occurs.
When a site provides a forum for free expression to a large number of people, there is a risk that some of the content created will be offensive and possibly even harmful to others. Developing and executing a policy that distinguishes free speech from inappropriate content and removes the latter is not a hard science and must continuously adapt to the content and context presented.
There is a grey area where open expression becomes damaging to others and the best practices on how to handle hate speech on the Internet will continue to be a work in progress. Somewhere between free speech, corporate responsibility and respectful expression is a solution but one that must be continuously refined.
-Written by Margarita Vaisman, Associate Director, Community Management