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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution