Why Facebook's rape jokes are no laughing matter

Abuse based on gender is not simply offensive but a hate crime like anything else.

Abuse based on gender is not simply offensive but a hate crime like anything else.

Have you heard the one about the struggling woman and the rapist trying to pin her down? Rape is funny. It's quite the joke, and Facebook apparently doesn't mind if you spend your time swapping fantasised tales of abuse.

In between talk of Greys Anatomy and the annoying ones from X Factor, the global social networking site is home to pages dedicated to discussing rape in a positive light. "You know she's playing hard to get when your (sic) chasing her down an alleyway","Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you don't want to wake her up" and other delights have been on the site for for months, places where fans can discuss strategies of forcing women into sex in a so-called "comic" way. That this is, according to Facebook, acceptable, is the truly sick joke.

In response to calls to take the pages down, the site released a statement declaring that "groups that express an opinion on a state, institution, or set of beliefs -- even if that opinion is outrageous or offensive to some -- do not by themselves violate our policies." A quick read of the site's own terms and conditions confirms this is very much not the case. It is there in black and white with, "You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence". According to Facebook, talking about raping your friend's girlfriend to see "if she can put up a fight" is neither violent nor hateful, and advocating such a scenario is a "belief". Not for the first time, we are told rape is something to be trivialised -- the special crime that can be actively promoted with the confidence that few will bat an eye.

It's not a newsflash that the internet is home to some deranged, offensive language -- in many ways, it is the place where good taste comes to die. A distasteful liberation comes from the anonymity, as the author is comforted by the knowledge that they cannot be seen behind the screen. It's a sense of security that is often misleading, it being illegal to stir up hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. When it comes to hatred on the grounds of gender, however, there is no such legislation, with anyone free to whip up misogyny.

Be it Facebook policy or our own laws, abuse against women is treated differently; separated and viewed as lesser than that leveled at other marginalised groups. The rules that would rightly apply if the victim were black, Muslim or gay are deemed irrelevant if the victim is female. The hate spouted based on this factor is not a type that counts. Women, it seems, do not count.

We exist in a culture that views the abuse of women as something less than serious. Rape can be encouraged on global networking sites, just as t-shirts and hair products can be sold based on the concept of coming home to your boyfriend and being smacked round the face. Facebook says it with confidence -- if directed at women, violence is a joke. But abuse is abuse. That which is based on gender should be seen not simply as offensive, but a hate crime like anything else.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham. She blogs at Different Principles and tweets @frances_ryan

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.