Facebook likes to claim that it exists to
Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
In many ways it does this: I’m a regular user. I like sharing pictures of my kid with faraway friends, for one thing. But there are many ways in which Facebook does not make me feel open, or connected. And as for sharing? Well, I’d better not share a photo of me breastfeeding Bean because that would be obscene!
The furore over Facebook’s removal of breastfeeding photos such as these may have abated slightly but there has been no satisfactory resolution. Members of Facebook groups promoting the right to breastfeed publicly and the acceptance of breastfeeding as physiologically normal are still periodically either banned or threatened with banning. Images of breastfeeding posted either on individual’s profiles or group sites are subject to removal.
When I posted about the Facebook breastfeeding ban here and here, the hypocrisy of Facebook’s founders concerned me: here was a site which happily rakes in revenue from targeted ads (dating services seem to be a favourite) which very frequently include sexualised images of women. Logging into my page on any given day, I know I’m likely to be bombarded with a nice bit of boobage spilling out of a tight dress inticing me to click, click, click. Moreover, like Myspace, Facebook hosts many images uploaded by users of themselves or others in sexualised poses. Where these images don’t contain the requisite amount of nudity to be called ‘obscene’ by Facebook, they are left alone.
Now I’m not saying that all pouty-face shots must first pass the censors! But clearly there is a disconnect here: rational adults know that an image can be highly sexualised without including outright nudity and we also should know that breastfeeding is not sexual, even though it very often includes some form of nudity.
April at Eclectic Effervescence wrote this Open Letter to Facebook about the breastfeeding ban
Last week, I posted a picture of myself breastfeeding my newborn twins using my Facebook account. I posted this picture to a pro-breastfeeding fan page, to help encourage other mothers. My picture was one of thousands uploaded to the page. What a beautiful site. All of these experienced breastfeeding women, supporting each other. Helping to say, “breastfeeding is normal!” “Breastfeeding is beautiful!” It really is an amazing page.
But you took that picture down.
And this follow-up piece, complete with images that Facebook apparently don’t think are inappropriately sexual, is well worth your time.
Lately, my ire has increased. It’s not just in the advertising or the typical user-uploaded images that fundamental hypocrisy is laid bare. Facebook is home to innumerable ‘groups’ and ’cause’ pages which violate every element of basic decency, taste, and fairness. In short: they are obscene.
For Exhibit A, I present:
The recent Facebook page set up by male university students attending St Paul’s College in Sydney and dedicated to the benefits of raping women and vitiating both the moral and legal concept of ‘consent’ is an example, albeit extreme, of maintained attitudes regarding women, sex and sexual violence.
This piece by Caroline Taylor on last year’s controversy over a page set up to promote rape rightly suggests that the culture in which a page like this was allowed to flourish for months unchallenged – that is, the culture of Facebook and also of Australia – is not respectful of girls and women. It is a rape culture.
It’s also a violent culture. Facebook provided the perfect outlet for those bored with playing Grand Theft Auto: Killing Your Hooker So You Don’t Have To Pay Her.
More recently, Melinda Tankard Reist has written about a group dedicated to slut-shaming.The site has since been removed, but only after numerous reports were made about its title, content, images and commentary – including around twenty from me on separate counts of extreme hate speech. Some of the images were of girls as young as ten. One of them was a woman with a battered face: comments included ‘her husband had to tell her twice LOL’ and other statements that do not bear repeating. Melinda Tankard Reist writes:
Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?
By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.
After a campaign of reporting, the group was removed: but not hastily. And at what cost to the girls and women shamed, was that delay? Anecdotally, I’ve heard a breastfeeding photo can last less than a few hours on Facebook if it is prominently posted. The apologists who keep telling me that Facebook can’t possibly moderate its content any faster may need to try again with a better argument. As Danielle Miller writes, this type of cyber bullying can be devastating for those directly targeted, but it can also be triggering and disturbing for the rest of us. These shrines to hate speech and denigration only serve as constant reminders that women (or any other targeted group) are less than. And open to vicious attack.
Arguments that Facebook’s user-generated content is simply reflective of the broader community and should therefore be left alone don’t sit well with me. Facebook and other social media is not real life: it can feel consequence-free, and it can channel outpourings of goodwill — or hate — in ways which seem to gather their own momentum. It is also becoming an ‘essential’ part of the lives of most teenagers and adults – even young children — so its reach is huge. It markets itself as safe — certainly, the reputation it has with parents seems to be more favourable than that of MySpace, and the rhetoric used to justify the banning of breastfeeding photos suggests that the company cares about young users and ‘keeping things clean’. And yet, because they rely on user moderation and clearly don’t pay enough staff to deal promptly with user reports, they can unwittingly host extremely offensive and also illegal content.
Australian online newspaper The Punch took them to task over this, prompted by the hijacking of two pages dedicated to memorialising young children:
Tribute pages to two children who died in tragic circumstances this month – Elliott Fletcher and 8-year-old Trinity Bates – were used to post obscene messages and pornographic content. The incident has sparked a heated debate over the extent to which Facebook monitors the content people distribute on the network.
Apparently the depravity of some people knows no bounds, and far be it from the moderators to stifle their ‘fun’ too swiftly.
After reading about this, I had a little look around some group pages set up to raise awareness and/or funds to fight the proliferation of images of child sexual abuse. I won’t link to what I found. But suffice to say there are two kinds of people who frequent those pages who are most certainly not welcome: those who think that it’s entertaining to make jokes about raping children in order to get a rise out of people, and those who post links (or hints of where to find links) to objectionable material. I even stumbled across some Facebook profiles of people using aliases which double as euphemisms for paedophilia, one of whom listed as his employer ‘child porn’. And included a link to a website in Asia. The only place I clicked was the Report button but I still felt like I needed a shower afterwards.
So is the answer just to log off? (Unfair to lose this platform to share photos and updates with friends!) Shout loudly until somebody starts to listen and content is more sensitively moderated and reports more acted upon more quickly? (Perhaps – although this is difficult, demoralising work to do without significant support.) Set up counter groups about diversity and respect, consent and empowerment and then police them vigilantly for trolls? (This is already being done – are enough people paying attention?) Accept that douchebaggery is inevitable? (Isn’t that depressing and defeatist?) Just look at some pictures of kittens and think happy thoughts? (Maybe.)
What’s your best answer? Because I honestly don’t know mine.
Also guest-posted at www.melindatankardreist.com.au