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.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times