Facebook can't keep turning a blind eye to the women-haters it enables

By dealing with violent misogyny on a "case by case" basis, Facebook sends the message that the wider ideas are OK, writes Jane Fae.

This piece contains descriptions of, and links to, extremely disturbing imagery of sexual violence from the very start. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but what do you do after raping a deaf mute? Simple: Break her fingers so she can't tell anyone!

That – and here I'll apologise both for that opening and for what follows – is vile. Beyond belief that it be accepted as humour in this day and age. (Although I'll note, in passing, that it is also staple fare for some of our supposedly "edgier" comics, who get away with such stuff because their quick-fire style means they deliver one obscenity and are on to the next before you realise what you've just heard).

And its by no means the worst. Facebook is awash with such viciousness. Images of women beaten, bruised, murdered, raped in all their technicolour glory.

If you have a strong stomach, WomenActionMedia! (WAM!) have been collecting examples.

Only, these are jokes, doncha know? Because they carry witty captions such as "She Broke My Heart. I Broke Her Nose", or "Women deserve equal rights. And lefts".

I am not even going to try and analyse. Some of it makes me angry beyond words; some just makes me want to cry.

Instead, let's pull back a little and understand why, suddenly, the issue is making news. I first encountered instances of this particular misogynistic trope on the #silentnomore hashtag: that was an attempt by women, including survivors of abuse and violence, to create a space where they could speak about their experiences.

Bad idea. Women speaking to women clearly enraged some men, who bombarded the topic with "what about us?" rhetoric – and witty links to this sort of imagery. I complained to Twitter: nothing happened. The pictures stayed.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, these pics have been proliferating. Sometimes, its blokes – y'know, regular kind of guys – sharing them "for a laff". Sometimes, they are used more aggressively, to attack and humiliate "uppity women". Women, in turn, have been noticing. A joint campaign, organised by Everyday Sexism, WAM! and Soraya Chemaly has condemned this material as gender-based hate speech: their campaign, asking advertisers to boycott Facebook, is gaining support and increasing in effectiveness.You can follow what's happening on #FBrape.

As for Facebook, they have spluttered highmindedly about the difficulty of negotiating a pathway between interest groups: how they must balance individual rights against the imperative of free speech. Interviewed by the BBC, one spokesperson rejected calls for them to censor "disturbing content", or "crude attempts at humour", because "while it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies".

Still, they acknowledge officially that much of this material is "abhorrent to many of us who work at Facebook". A spokesperson added: "These cases test all of us, because they can be deeply jarring."

Do you not feel their pain, caught between a rock and a hard place?

Besides, they claim, the vast majority of this content has been taken down already. Although, in what looks like a serious attempt to have their cake and eat it, they further add: "removing content is not the solution to getting rid of ignorance. Having the freedom to debate serious issues like this is how we fight prejudice".

Silly me! I must have missed out on the serious debate about whether it is appropriate to break a woman's nose if she fails to make a sandwich right, first time of asking.

There is no serious issue in play here, beyond what should be the limits of free speech and what is acceptable within a relatively open online space. I have a smidgeon of sympathy for the US-based Facebook, nailed to a US legal perspective on free speech whereby only material that shows direct harm can be prosecuted.

But that's only half the story. Facebook has a long track record of somewhat heavy-handedly imposing heteronormative values and attitudes. Breastfeeding groups have been taken down, as have all manner of pages celebrating the female body in art and more generally, while soft porn remains. As does some hate speech, magically disappearing only when a journalist mentions it to their press office.

Laura, organiser at EverydaySexism, tells me today about the different treatment of two cases. Complaints about the content of "Black bitches and dogs" led to content being removed on a picture by picture basis: whereas the organiser of "Amazing Women" found her page supporting the #FBrape campaign, with some images added as political statement, taken down – and her personal account suspended.

Suspicion remains that Facebook have only intervened more publicly in response to the #FBrape campaign, issuing soothing words to calm their advertisers.

In the end, though, what's truly problematic is this idea that all speech is equal, and speech that encourages abuse and violence against women is every bit as worthwhile and protection-worthy as any other form of speech. It isn't – that's an 18th century argument still getting too much unquestioning support in an internet age. Speech and publication mean something very different from what the US founding fathers meant. It's a very laddish argument, which is not to say that women may not also support it: but the fact that Facebook relies on it means they are not listening to women and to an alternative perspective that women may put.

That's the real issue here. Facebook needs to start listening to women. No joke.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood