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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.