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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot