If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, why is it still hosting revenge porn?

Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. Facebook won't do anything about it.

Facebook has a problem with women. That was clear about the time it started to take down photos that showed women’s mastectomy scars whilst leaving images that apparently showed women beaten and raped.

As problems go, it’s been a longstanding one (I wrote back in October 2011 about their housing of rape promoting groups – groups like “Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you don’t want to wake her up” – and refusal to do anything about it). It’s also been progressing. As last month’s outcry over misogynistic pages showed, over the past two years horrific (warning: not hyperbole) words have been joined by horrific pictures

After a targeted campaign by feminist groups, Facebook finally listened. They made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate. 

I wonder, then, why "revenge porn" pages are sitting on the site.

By unhappy accident, I stumbled upon one last week. After less than five minutes of investigation via the Facebook search tool, I’d found 22 more. (Having continued to search over the past few days, it was creepily easy to keep finding new pages.)

Pages with the declared intention to (quote) "Expose all the slags and sluts" and "Inbox pictures of your nude ex and get them back for the bad things!" Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. 

It’s been known for a while that there are websites dedicated to "revenge porn". They’re about humiliation and shaming women for being sexual. And now Facebook is part of it.

On the site’s pages, there’s photo after photo of women in their underwear or holding their breasts. Some are masturbating. One I saw was a woman giving oral sex – a picture that showed her face.

Facebook’s "comment" and "like" functions allow an added layer of sleazy misogyny. With a click, users can rate what they see or write what they’d like to do to the victim. (Examples: "i would smash you in" and "there a boss pear [sic] of tits to sponk all over lool.")

Under one photo of a woman holding her breasts that showed her bedroom, users proceeded to have a conversation about how she needed to “spend less time in front of that mirror and start cleaning up that room. what [sic] shit hole.” (10 likes).  I imagine they lifted that one out of the sexist’s rulebook: while calling a woman a slag, tell her to do more housework.

Whether the victim is named varies. On some pages, there are photos of undressed women and above each – with a chilling lack of comment – is their full name. On others, the photos are anonymous and fellow Facebook users bate the poster to name and shame her.

Many of the pages have a town or city in their title, as if this is a trend with regional affiliations. Disturbingly, it also makes it easier for anyone to identify and find the victims. (The NS has decided not to give any more details, or link to any such sites, to avoid further distress to those featured.)

Holly Jacobs, Founder of End Revenge Porn, tells me that so far she’s seen limited action from Facebook in dealing with the issue. “Several people have told me that after they report pages like [these], Facebook refuses to remove them on account that they are not violating any of their terms of service,” she says. “I’d love for Facebook to eventually recognize that these are essentially promoting violence against women, but I suppose that will take some time.”

Pornography, in and of itself, clearly violates Facebook’s terms and conditions. As such, if you report a page that shows sexual acts or nudity, the explicit content means it should be taken down (though that's cold comfort to the naked victims in the meantime). But what about the revenge porn pages where women aren’t naked? Many of the victims I saw were in their bra and pants. To the cold wording of terms and conditions, an ex-boyfriend vengefully posting a photo of a woman in her underwear could be no different than a girl posting a photo of herself on holiday in a bikini. If Facebook’s point of concern is nudity rather than misogyny, what happens to the (technically covered) women currently having their image abused on the site?

Or put it another way, does a woman having her image put online to shame and humiliate only matter to Facebook if it shows her nipples or genitals?

If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, it needs to get to grips with this: clarifying where it stands on revenge porn and dealing with what’s currently festering under its name. Or, as its users stumble across themselves exposed for other’s twisted amusement, Facebook’s problem with women is only going to get darker. 

Facebook has made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate, and yet revenge porn is depressingly easy to find on the site. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile