Should Facebook Censor Misogynistic Material?

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about pressure that is mounting on Facebook to censor websites full of awful misogynistic material. The company said it was reviewing its processes for dealing with content under its hate speech policy.

As free speech and internet freedom advocates, what are we to make of this story? It seems to me that part of the ambiguity that arises in these cases is that there are two separate, incommensurable frames or paradigms through which we can interpret the situation.

In many respects, Facebook is a publisher like the New York Times, and like any editor has the right to exercise discretion in what it publishes, or allows others to publish in its pages. Within that framework (which is undoubtedly the legal framework that currently applies), those who care about internet freedom and free expression can relax, confident in the knowledge that whatever Facebook decides to do, all is well. In fact, from this point of view, we might note that social pressure against awful points of view is a perfectly acceptable means of restricting expression. Indeed, while we don't want the government censoring racist, misogynist, homophobic, or other hate speech, it is perfectly legitimate—desirable even—for citizens to express their social disapproval of such speech, and socially sanction those who use it. As a publisher, as a participant in the raucous conversation of public life, Facebook is entirely within its rights to act upon such anti-social material.

But Facebook can also be viewed through another lens. Facebook is in charge of a sprawling empire—a vast realm in which hundreds of millions of people vehemently express themselves and their opinions about the full range of human activity. It has to manage this swarming hive of activity, impose a minimum degree of order, and ensure that everything runs smoothly. It has the power to set rules, and to enforce them. In short, when it comes to the vast realm it oversees, Facebook is a government.

Viewed as a government, Facebook is almost an experiment in political science. What happens when a realm of human endeavor is governed by a near-absolute ruler that can set any rule, squelch any speech, expel any "citizen" for any reason, with only the due process protections it sees fit to spend money on?

Inevitably, without democratic checks and balances and pressure valves and escape mechanisms that allow people to act when they are unhappy, frustrations build, and privately run online worlds, like undemocratic countries, can be susceptible to social unrest and instability.

At the same time, the absolute nature of Facebook's power over its realm can actually help when it comes to one danger that affects democratic governments in particular: tyranny of the majority. As our Founding Fathers were so aware, the democratic passions of the majority, if not guarded by a strong judiciary, can themselves lead to the trampling of rights. Unpopular points of view are especially susceptible. If Facebook members could vote, there is no question that a wide variety of speech would be disallowed. So Facebook plays the role not just of the executive and legislative branches, but also of the judiciary.

Like any government, Facebook also has an interest in separating itself from responsibility for bad things. In the case of Facebook, "bad things" generally means bad speech. As I've written about before, once companies open the door to any censorship, they open themselves to blame and recriminations not only for anything they choose to censor, but also for anything they choose not to censor. And soon they are embroiled in pressures and counter-pressures over what to allow and what to forbid. If they declare their forum a free speech zone, on the other hand, they can credibly disclaim responsibility for anything that is said there.

I think Facebook recognizes this, and so has been commendably resistant to many calls for censorship, which are legion. In addition to the controversy over misogynistic sites, for example, there are also ongoing campaigns to remove various racist sites, and sites that glorify animal cruelty. But Facebook often seems hesitant to play the role of censor.

I suspect that Facebook also recognizes that hosting a lively, raucous forum where passionate debates rage, is much healthier not only for speech, but also, as a company that sells page-views, for its bottom line. As outrage over various awful material builds, and gets forwarded and circulated around, Facebook benefits not only from the additional page views, but also from the general passion and engagement and simple attention that Facebook is generating among its users. For Facebook, boring is bad and anything else is good.

At the end of the day, however, Facebook is not an absolute potentate; it is a for-profit company dependent on advertising revenue, and that gives advertisers power over it. And behind the advertisers stand consumers. So though Facebook has been admirably restrained in exercising its plenipotentiary powers over its little world, ultimately unpopular speakers within that world are susceptible to an attenuated version of the tyranny of the majority.

I think that over the long term, Facebook's best course is to absorb some short-term pain and stick fast to the principle that its forum shall be one where speech is free. Eventually people will learn that on Facebook, as in a public forum run by the real government, censorship of speech is just not an option, and will direct their outrage where it belongs: against the speaker, not against the forum.

Update: A colleague points me to this recent piece by Jeffrey Rosen detailing the struggles of Facebook and other companies to deal with content issues, and arguing as I have done that it is in their interest to maintain a strong pro-speech stance.

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Maureen Kris

It might be of good purpose to recognize the power of social media and how the misogynist gestures of a few can motivate rampant responses from thousands (supporting such tendencies) if this is a concern in our social systems today. In light of the divorce statistics, increase in homogender relationships and passage of VAWA it may be preliminarily evident that there are concerning tendencies toward misogyny in our social system today. What is the social responsibility of social media outlets to prevent rampant responses that could fuel hatred (worse than a gang syndrome in one's local community might do)? We do not condone violence as Sec Clinton stated after the derogatory movie on Islam was released online that may have ignited the concern at our consulate in Libya. Neither do we condone hate speech that could be inciting acts of violence against innocent women.

Anonymous

How is this even a question for the ACLU? Wow.

Anonymous

Jay,

I don't think you are trying to be insensitive here and while I find your ability to defend hate speech repugnant, I see no reason to be angry with you. Instead, I ask you to read what you've written and replace women and violence with "children and sexual molestation" and try to justify it in the same way, as speech to be protected, just for the sake of free speech. I ask for this not because women are child like, but because I am pretty sure the average person can agree that if this were the topic, there'd be no question about how unacceptable it would be to defend Facebook in the name of free speech.

I'm a domestic violence survivor (and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse for that matter) and I can tell you that allowing such hate speech on a platform like Facebook is to normalize it; that is to say that they are OK with it, and in turn, those who have experienced rape and domestic violence are less human. Allowing it on a social networking site is condoning future acts, by saying it's funny or just a joke.

For the rest of my life I will suffer from horrifying flashbacks of those events. I can no longer walk in public without fear. I loose sleep on a regular basis to vivid nightmares. Work is on hold indefinitely due to the trauma I carry with me every day and everywhere I go. I suffer from Complex PTSD.

Perhaps it is that the broader media numbed you to violence against women? Perhaps you have never been treated as less than human? We can't change the whole of media, but I do think a company that has a TOS that is supposed to prevent the spread of hate speech has an obligation to do so without selectively ignoring the impact such violence has in our nation, especially given its platform to normalize such behavior.

Again, I will ask you to read your post and change the topic to children and sexual molestation. If you can do that and still sleep at night, I'm not sure I can trust your thinking and what you stand for at the ACLU.

Anonymous

I'm gonna have to stand with Anon #13 on this. This article is vague enough to border on the disingenuous. The speech being debated is not mere misogynistic opinion (i.e., the thought that women are inferior to men), but actual exhortations ("ironic" or not) to commit acts of violence against women, including battery, violent forced abortion, rape, and murder. Pictures of women with bruises, scars, or even fatal wounds are used as the backgrounds for captions justifying the violence depicted. To be graphic, for which I apologize in advance, one picture that was used in at least one article on this matter shows what is presumed to be the corpse of a woman bleeding from a (thankfully unseen) head wound, with the caption "I love her for her brains". Another consists of an image of a woman lying in a heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs with the caption "Shouldn't have gotten pregnant".

Some people will claim that it's all just jokes and in good fun; I said "'ironic' or not" when referring to this content specifically because of these people. Whether or not you are attempting to be "ironic" (which is used as a shield for actual derogatory statements more often than not, it seems), this is still the propagation of rhetoric that normalizes and in fact encourages acts of violence against women. It is no different than using images of lynchings or the Holocaust for anti-black or anti-Semitic purposes, and "it's just a joke" shouldn't be an invincible aegis against criticism or policing.

By declaring Facebook a "free speech zone", it will be destined to become little more than an ad-supported 4chan (where "faggot" is used as a catch-all pronoun) or reddit (where r/beatingwomen is a thriving community, as well as a subreddit whose name consists solely of the plural form of an epithet for blacks). That is, an increasingly hostile environment for women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons, etc. The idea that content policing should not be used in a public forum to quell speech that actually incites violence is laughable, and smacks of the right-libertarian philosophy of rejecting the Social Contract.

Paul Elam

This article misses the point entirely. This debate is not about curbing the expression of misogyny or any other form of hate speech. It is about censoring dissent from feminist dogma.

I have a Facebook fan page with a few thousand fans. It is a men's rights page. There are no misogynistic posts at all (though this may surprise those that cannot distinguish between being anti-feminist and anti-woman).

They just removed a post of mine in the last several hours. Again, there is nothing about it that is misogynistic or hateful or pro violence. It simply challenges the existence of "rape culture" and questions the validity of feminist conducted research on sexual assaults.

More simply, it challenges ideological feminism.

avoiceformen(dot)com/mens-rights/false-rape-culture/facebook-wastes-no-time-in-banning-the-truth/

It was removed for "violating community standards" which it did not, and I have been barred from posting for 12 hours.

With all respect, you at the ACLU should be on top of this in much better form. If you think the debate is about sexism, you are only partially right.

It is about the sexism employed to censor one side of an ideological debate. And you are buying into it big time.

Melchiah

This is an excellent article, and a welcome sight in a new age of censorship efforts in the west driven by the political left. Unfortunately, Facebook's newest policy change has already lead to at least one incident of the censorship of political speech. http://www.avoiceformen.com/mens-rights/false-rape-culture/facebook-wastes-no-time-in-banning-the-truth/ As part of the MHRM's advocacy efforts, men and women like Paul Elam and Karen Straughan attempt to publish accurate statistics on rape, domestic violence, and sexual assault, both for the purposes of highlighting a mostly invisible population of male victims, the women who are responsible for victimizing many of them, and disassembling a harmful feminist narrative in which all women are encouraged to be terrified of all men. (A tyrannous and unjustified fear that harms female self-actualization and quality of life while lining feminist pockets) One such posting on facebook was censored under their new policy as an example of hate speech. As you will see in the linked article, the posting itself was not misogynistic in nature, but was instead political speech, dissenting from a construct of feminist theory. This act of censorship will serve as the first of many, in which anti-feminist political speech is censored as hate speech. It is a continuation of a long-standing strategy by feminists to ensure the hegemony of their ideological constructs by forcing other entities to censor "misogyny," with what constitutes misogyny being something that only feminist agents are allowed to define. As Facebook is on of the most popular social networking sites on the internet, heavily integrated with other websites, and one of the most prominent sites among those with little immersion into "internet culture," the censorship of content on Facebook has special ramifications in regards to the ability for political groups and movements to conduct outreach, recruit, and engage in public discourse. (especially for those entities who cannot command national media attention) These ramifications constitute an intolerable limitation on the freedom of speech, and pose an incredible threat to the political activity of organizations opposed to the political agenda that is driving and informing censorship efforts. Facebook has a moral duty as a large and robust forum to protect the speech of its members from politically driven censorship aimed at crushing the expression of opposition to feminist constructs. Unfortunately, they have also clearly failed in this duty, and now we can only hope that the impacts of their failure are smaller than they threaten to be.

Anonymous

I am not that familiar with Facebook misogyny, have not seen it, and would object to it, and misandry too, if I saw it. Facebook is not a state actor so it can censor whatever it wishes, or not censor. I prefer the latter, in the interest of freedom of expression. The problem with censorship is that it is hard to do without discriminating, as in the case of banning misogyny but not misandry. And by the way, urging someone to do something violent against another person is a violation of the criminal law, the last I heard, just as it is a violation of criminal law to communicate a threat of violence.

As for ACLU in my judgment they are cunning hypocrites motivated by cupidity and feminist pressure and not a little dirty politics when they pick their battles. I have been bloodied here in NC by a false restraining order and a cyberstalking arrest. The latter was dismissed but not due to any help from ACLU, or EFF, when I begged for it. The RO I am still feverishly fighting because I know that it is the product of lying under oath and ruthless spite. Google _Grist vs. Smith_ for 18 pages of fiction posing as caselaw.
www.buncyblawg.com

Anonymous

Maybe facebook users would be a little nicer to women if there weren't so very very many women on facebook calling for the elimination and/or further enslavement of the male half of the species, and in general being unthinking sexist retards.

Apparently saying you hate men and want to kill them all isn't hate speech? Speakers of hate speech invite hatred toward themselves, as long as it goes in one direction, it will go in the other.
The side that spews forth more has to curtail theirs by ten times as much as they want the lesser to slow, or they will see the situation approach parity with increasing speed.
Search "Hate Men" and try to guess which side of this is spewing the most hate on facebook.

Imdefender

For everyone crying misogyny
Please facebook search "i hate men" go on

Also The paper trail shows WAM! as a recipient of funding from Peace Development Fund, who in turn accepts federal funding.
yea

The Egalitarian

So will Facebook also be censoring the anti male misandric material that can be found on there site, or will women be the only ones afforded this protection?

I would also like to know what exactly constitutes misogynistic hate speech. Is being critical of women in any way considered being misogynistic? How about being critical of Feminism? Is that considered being misogynistic?

Lets face it, there is no guarantee that this new censorship policy wont be used to silence political dissonance and constructive criticism. When a single party with a political agenda is given the power to define what constitutes "hate speech" abuse of that power will inevitably happen.

Which is why Facebook's new censorship policy disturbs me so much, its being pushed by several feminist groups with a clear political agenda, what guarantee do I have that they will stop at censoring actual rampant hate speech and women hating and not move on to censoring constructive criticism of say feminism?

To be honest I don't think feminist, Facebook nor anyone has the self restraint to be entrusted with that kind of power. Freedom comes from open debate, not a single group enforcing what can and cant be said.

Facebook's and Feminism's foray into the world of censorship will forever leave a black mark on them and reflects poorly on both organizations core values. I would expect this kind of behavior from a greedy corporation but not from a so called human rights group.

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