To Change Facebook's Policies, Start With Its Advertisers

Photograph by Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, the Daily Dot, a tech blog, posted an article under the headline “When Does Facebook Take Rape Threats Seriously?” One answer to that question became clear on Tuesday: when advertisers say so.

Just one week into a campaign to pressure Facebook to toughen its stance against rape jokes and other hate speech targeting women, the company relented yesterday. In the last week people have sent 57,000 tweets and 4,900 e-mails to companies whose advertisements were showing up on pages with particularly vile content, according to Women, Action, & the Media, one of the groups pressuring Facebook.

Facebook said it would update its guidelines on hate speech, train the people who review complaints, and work more closely with women’s groups to understand sexist hate speech in particular. Somewhat bafflingly, the site also said that people who make cruel and insensitive jokes will be required to use their real identities, although its terms of service already require all users to do so.

Facebook has infuriated many of its users with what they see as an inconsistent approach to enforcing its terms of service for inappropriate content. It has removed pages that are unsavory but do not seem to be in explicit violation of its policies, like a group dedicated to unprotected sex between gay men. Meanwhile, pictures of battered women overlaid with phrases like “Next time don’t get pregnant” have remained on the site. There have been many campaigns to pressure the company in the past, and it has sometimes agreed to remove similar pages. But it has also defended the value of allowing people wide latitude to make offensive jokes.

To understand why this campaign was so swift and effective, it’s important to note the recipients of these angry e-mails. Sites like Facebook facilitate conversation and connection between people, but all that discourse is actually the company’s product, against which to sell advertising. When Facebook calculates the value of letting its users offend one another, its primary question is one of commercial viability. As a result, these companies are willing to absorb a fair amount of criticism, as in the case of privacy policies. When commercial interests are at stake, they can be quick to attack, as Apple has been with its App Store.

Why Facebook ever saw the content in question here as anything but a commercial liability remains a mystery to me, but once that fact was demonstrated, action was probably inevitable. What advertisers say goes. Those who want to influence Facebook in the future, take note.

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