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.

Undercover Migrant / VICE
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Undercover as an eastern European migrant in London, I discovered the pain of Brexit Britain

Ben Judah used his eastern European childhood and languages to live as a newcomer to the UK. Here’s what he found.

Living undercover as a broke eastern European migrant in Brexit Britain, I learned that minimum wage, health and safety, and “The Rules” in general exist only for natives and those established enough to fight for them. Not for the desperate. Not for the migrants who arrive with nothing.

This is how I entered their world.

I started at Victoria Coach Station, our miserable Ellis Island.

For weeks, I kept coming here. To see the point from which our society is changing. I kept coming until I knew which Eurolines brought in which types of people: the Polish men, tense, lugging bags of tools; the Bulgarians in puffer jackets, with worried faces; the Roma, with return tickets, straight off to the streets to beg.

I spent much of my childhood in the Balkans. That world, it used to feel so far – but now it’s super close. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from watching the Balkans – the faces, the rural voices – unload every morning at Victoria Coach Station. What, in the daze of arrival, did they see?

The earlier the bus, the cheaper, and the migrants, poorer. The closer to first light, I soon found, the less likely the person arriving was to be armed with a plan. It’s so easy to jump from Bucharest and Warsaw to London by bus. Many do so on a whim. A broken heart, a brutal sacking, or just a yearning to try your luck. London is where the runaways come.

That didn’t surprise me. In another life, as another Romanian, Polish, Ukrainian person, I know I would have longed to be one who just goes.

What surprised me was how many, on how little money, were willing to risk giving up their own country for “England” (they never say “Britain”). Sometimes it was an interview at a salad factory. That was enough to leave Romania, vowing never to return. Usually it was £100 in the back pocket and a vague “call me” from a village mate already jobbing in the UK. Often, a rumour the Big Issue was “hiring Gypsies”.

Morning after morning, I met the same blind optimism. “England is a mini-America,” I often heard. “London, she never turned anyone away.”

Not every migrant arrives like this. Most EU migrants – the vast majority – arrive with jobs, plans and professions. Yet at the same time, every year, tens of thousands of eastern European migrants arrive without jobs. Thousands of them arrive with next to nothing. These lives matter, even if they only tell a small part of a huge story.

For my new VICE.com film Undercover Migrant, I decided to follow them, using my eastern European languages from my childhood, into a London underworld of fetid doss houses, beggar gangs, and illegal touting spots where a labourer’s daily wage is one portion of chicken and chips.

We shot the film consecutively: day-by-day, as if I really had just arrived. I started at the beginning, at Victoria Coach Station with nothing.


Undercover Migrant/VICE

Romanian is the rough sleeper’s language here. This is where I met Ionut and Lucian, two Roma beggars from Romania. They had just arrived. They could hardly comprehend the wealth now surrounding them: super-cars and icing sugar mansions.

After scavenging for cardboard, the one essential you need to bed down outside; we found a spot down in the tunnels under Hyde Park Corner. As we fell asleep, the boys kept talking about the Queen, and how they wanted to sleep in Buckingham Palace above – “for just one night” – to see what this fairytale was like. Why did this Queen allow us to sleep like this?

The worst-off migrants often spend their first nights like this – on the street. Today the majority of London’s 7,500 street sleepers are migrants, and a third of them are eastern European. Squats and doorsteps tend to divide into “English” and “Polish” zones. There are frequent fights.

How do you get into work if you arrive with nothing? No money or means, no proper address – and no proper address means no National Insurance number. This is why many head immediately to the illegal touting spots that mushroom outside the hardware stores along the North Circular ring road and the edge of London.

So, waking up on the street, this is where I went to next. Touting for work undercover, the lowest wage I ever saw here was one chicken and chips for a whole day’s work. All day, exploitative recruiters drift in and out looking for labour – without insurance, or minimum wage.

There is no way anyone living off the touting spots can afford their own room. This is why the next step up from the street is a doss house. These are pretty easy to find. These are where crooked landlords are cramming as many as they can into overcrowded, illegal, cheap rooms. Undercover, the worst doss house I ever lived in was 15 shoved into three rooms. They shared beds, and one night worker time-shared a bunk in the day.

How common is this? In 2015, the ONS estimated that there were 209,000 jobs in the country paying less than minimum wage. Yet the government has prosecuted only three firms for paying less than minimum wage since 2014. Little surprise the touting spots thrive.

I found my doss house the same way everyone else does: online. Romanians, Poles, Lithuanians – the main communities migrating here each have web portals where the migrant can find all the numbers they need. These are some of the busiest classified sites in London. There are mobiles for forklift truck lessons. There are mobiles for bosses after tillers. And there are numbers for shared rooms.


Undercover Migrant/VICE

You can’t call up in English and get an answer. You can’t call up in accented Romanian and get an answer either. They hang up immediately: police. To infiltrate, I posed as a Ukrainian laborer, with a Romanian-born friend taking the lead. We were both here looking for work.

Doss house are not just a Romanian story. One LSE study estimates that 40 per cent of immigrants to London from poorer countries in the 2000s have been accommodated through “an increase in persons per room”. For thousands of migrants, these damp rooms smelling of mildew are where the bright, naïve, hopes of Victoria Coach Station come to die.

We found the numbers of half a dozen doss houses in Ilford, deep in east London, and settled into the first one we found. Nobody was working in the house. They were heading out for work at the touting spot everyday and mostly returning emptyhanded. It didn’t take long for one labourer in the house to tell us this place “is like Rahova” – the name of Romania’s most infamous prison. A name that, in Romanian, rings of hopelessness.

There’s a conspiracy theory that migrants are jumping on buses in Warsaw and Bucharest, all experts on the A to Z of our benefits system, here to live the life of Riley in our council estates. But from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met this couldn’t be further from the truth. Britain’s worst-off migrants don’t know their rights. And they are being exploited. These are our most vulnerable.

In the new VICE documentary Undercover Migrant, journalist and author of This Is London Ben Judah walks in the footsteps of EU migrants and goes undercover to unearth the conditions newcomers are up against in Brexit Britain. Watch the full-length film now on VICE.com.

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Love With Vladimir Putin.