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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David Palmer

You are QUITE mistaken Missa. In fact one of the FIRST things Facebook took down (with an account suspension) was a post that had nothing more in it than a challenge to the feminist statements about 1/4 women being raped on college campuses. The post had NOTHING in it other than statistics indicating that the representation was inaccurate. Whether one agreed or disagreed with the post, it said NOTHING about being "pro-rape", said NOTHING about "violence", and said NOTHING that could be viewed as "inciting violence".

And while we are at it-if you are so unhappy with the supposed "incitement of violence" than do you also support Facebook banning the page "Killallmen" which is listed as a "Political movement", or the page entitled "Castrate all men"? Or what about something that is simply a COMMON feminist statement like "all men are potential rapists and abusers" (google it-you'll get literally millions of hits". Should those ALSO be censored? I notice that the policy is, on its face, sexist because it ONLY censors speech directed at WOMEN. Apparently, however, WOMEN are free to be as hateful on Facebook as they wish about men. Do you support that? Are you a sexist? If you answer yes to the first, then you must answer yes to the second as you support "different standards based on sex". Period.

The PROBLEM here is that much of what is being called "hate speech" in fact simply nothing more than "speech feminists disagree with". There are no clearly articulated standards for WHAT constitutes "hate speech" and NO clear standards for determining what constitutes "inciting violence against women". In fact the censorship has ALREADY gone beyond "inciting violence" and into "a political statement concerning statistics that feminists did not like".

Sorry-but I for one do not accept tyranny from ANYONE-on the right OR on the left. I REFUSE to be silenced just because someone, with NO proof, suddenly declares "I don't like it so it MUST be HATE SPEECH".

Define the characteristics of hate speech, Missa. Tell me exactly WHAT speech crosses that line, and under WHAT circumstances, and WHEN. Is "Castrate all men" or "Kill all men" hate speech? Because neither are banned under the "hate speech against women" policy. Is "I disagree with feminist statistics" hate speech? Is my post hate speech because I disagree with you? Because apparently disagreeing with feminist rhetoric is now banned under Facebook policy. So WHAT are the STANDARDS?

If you cannot DEFINE the standards then you have NO business censoring the speech. Period.

Anonymous

This is ironic, having a hate movement such as feminism define what is and censor "hate speech." It's such a sad time in history when a small unrepresentative minority of ideologues dictate the rules over millions of people.

I do not support Facebook's move to censor this speech based on the frivolous advocacy of a disgusting hate movement (feminism).

Yesiamjames fro...

I'm against Facebook censorship full stop but why are they being pushed to ban misogyny rather than simply sexism?

Racism certainly effect black people more than white people yet groups like the SPLC tracks white AND black supremacist groups.

If it was for example the NAACP pushing Facebook to ban racist material this would protect against racism towards all people, not just blacks.

Even if we were to buy in to the premise that the majority of sexism is directed towards women (which I personally disagree with) it wouldn't follow that only sexism towards women should be taken seriously.

Anonymous

As long as they censor misandrist material as well.

Anonymous

I see hate speech directed towards, women, men, Democrats, Republicans, all religious sects (including atheists). So if you are going to censor misogynistic comments, you better be willing to censor misandrist material as well.

Anonymous

When you you speak up about Misandry it's hate speech? But when you speak about misogyny it's empowerment?

When you give FACTS that discredit feminist lies it's hate speech? Why is it okay to treat men as subhuman and continue to enable violence and squelching of them and their rights but men asking for Equal treatment and the end to lies and a totalrian feminist dogma where what ever a woman says is empowerment are hatemongers

Folks this isn't going to stop with facebook. It won't stop till any form of speech no matter how based in fact it is on any forum or website or blog will be censored if it does not bend knee and submit to feminist hate and misandrist belief that all men are evil rapist and women are oppressed.

Anonymous

When you you speak up about Misandry it's hate speech? But when you speak about misogyny it's empowerment?

When you give FACTS that discredit feminist lies it's hate speech? Why is it okay to treat men as subhuman and continue to enable violence and squelching of them and their rights but men asking for Equal treatment and the end to lies and a totalrian feminist dogma where what ever a woman says is empowerment are hatemongers

Folks this isn't going to stop with facebook. It won't stop till any form of speech no matter how based in fact it is on any forum or website or blog will be censored if it does not bend knee and submit to feminist hate and misandrist belief that all men are evil rapist and women are oppressed.

Anonymous

The first amendment is to protect UNPOPULAR speech, as popular speech doesn't need protection.

Currently misogyny is VERY popular. It's perfectly acceptable (even funny) for a women to insult, belittle, abuse and even assault men. Men on television are portrayed as incompetent, stupid, lazy, criminals with no moral weight.

Misogynistic speech (or even the perception of such) is considered hate speech and is ridiculed or even (as the case here) forbidden.

Anonymous

The people at the beginning of this thread annoys me. The U.S. Constitution protects all speech. No matter how unpopular. Either you believe in the Constitution or you dont. SCOTUS said that even the Westboro Baptist Church has a right to protest. I might not like what they say. But they have that right. So Please grow up.

Anonymous

Well, now that this has devolved into a whinefest about how poor, persecuted men are being victimized by big, bad feminists who have the gall to call rape, murder and torture of women “violence against women” instead of “entertainment for men,” I’m not sure that anyone with a modicum of common sense is even reading anymore. However, just in case, it may be worth making a few salient points about the ACLU and its policy on when to get up in arms about “free speech violations.” As previous commenters have pointed out the ACLU had no problem with Facebook’s “censorship” policy against hate speech until they saw it as a threat to sites posting videos of gang rapes and advocating torture, murder, rape and other forms of violence against women. When pictures of breasfeeding mothers and mastectomy survivors were being routinely taken down by facebook for being “offensive content,” the ACLU was nowhere to be found. But when facebook takes down a video of a woman being slowly decapitated – a real murder by all accounts – the ACLU cries “censorship!” and calls facebook a government. Censoring content that empowers women is not something that the ACLU has ever had a problem with. However, when content that is the bread and butter of the sex industry is questioned the ACLU goes on a rampage. And there is a simple and logical explanation for that.

Violence against women and other forms of misogyny are the bread and butter of the sex industry and the sex industry is the bread and butter of the ACLU. That is why the ACLU has taken such an over the top position on the matter of facebook taking down pro-rape and other misogynistic facebook pages. Has the ACLU ever characterized facebook as a government for any other purpose? I cannot find any examples of it doing so. But in doing so now, they are just doing what good lawyers do. They are spit-balling legal arguments that they hope can help their clients down the road. The fear, for the ACLU, is that if misogynist hate speech and incitements to violence against women are recognized as harm in the context of facebook, what’s next? Is there the danger that rape and torture of women in pornography will be recognized as harm? If so, this is a “slippery slope” that could threaten the profits of the ACLU’s major clients and thus the coffers of the ACLU. And we know how the ACLU feels about “slippery slopes” that threaten the interests they represent.

The ACLU has put countless hours of time and effort into characterizing violence against women as “robust debate,” “sexual freedom,” and just a point of view that some people may find offensive (obviously not those who work for the ACLU.). They have chided those who object to violence against women used as “adult entertainment” to just shut up and not look at what we find “offensive.” It has been critical to their strategy to insist that when women are degraded, defamed and dehumanized it is not really harmful, but merely something that some (over-sensitive) people might find offensive. They have had a great deal of success in the courts with these arguments. However, the world has changed a lot since the ACLU first started making the case for violence against women as a form of debate and entertainment. When courts and editorial boards were staffed exclusively or primarily by men, the argument that harm to women is merely offensive and therefore should be considered free speech was easier to sell. Now that women have achieved a greater role and a louder voice in the public sphere, we are no longer subjected to a public sphere in which only one point of view is allowed. The ACLU had it easier in the past when women had little or no access to speech. Now that the number of women journalists, politicians, academics, activists, bloggers etc. has increased we are starting to see what a true marketplace of ideas might look like. It is no longer the marketplace that the ACLU idealizes, where only one point of view about “free speech” is for sale and it’s the one that says its okay to regulate all kinds of speech (perjury, fraud, defamation, copyright infringement, etc.) but anyone who wants to regulate the “speech” that defames, degrades and endangers women is anything from a misguided hysterical feminist to a fascist McCarthyist.

The ACLU was founded as an organization committed to protecting free speech. Sadly, it’s been a very long time since the ACLU has been anything other than a mouthpiece for corporations who want to protect their profits by characterizing what they do as speech. The current debate about misogynist hate speech and the willingness of some actors to take women’s rights and safety seriously gives a glimmer of hope to anyone who is genuinely interested in freedom of speech as opposed to freedom to harm, freedom to profit, and freedom to silence half the human race.

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