Photo courtesy womenactionmedia.org.
Feminists won big on Tuesday when an online campaign forced Facebook to revisit their policies on misogynist hate speech. In just a week, the protest—organized by Women, Action & the Media (WAM), Everyday Sexism and writer Soraya Chemaly—generated nearly 5,000 e-mails and 60,000 tweets directed at Facebook’s advertisers. After companies started to pull ads, Facebook responded with a lengthy statement committing to change their policies and admitting they hadn’t been doing their due diligence curtailing violent sexism: “In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate…. We need to do better—and we will.”
The success of the action is not just more proof that online activism is increasingly becoming feminism’s strong suit—from Facebook to Komen to transvaginal ultrasounds—but it also gives some hope that the culture is starting to shift around violence against women.
Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of WAM,* says the win left her “cautiously optimistic.” Friedman points to the outrage over the social media-documented rape in Steubenville, gang rapes in India and the suicides of several young rape victims as indications that Americans may have had enough of the consequences of rape culture. While she’s still unsure that the country is ready for widespread change, she believes “there’s a critical mass right now; it could be a tipping point moment.”
And with social media giant Facebook taking such a big step forward, Friedman says it could “move the bar for what we tolerate online.”
Like Friedman, I’m hopeful but wary—the fact that such a campaign needed to be launched at all is a depressing indicator of where American culture is on sexual assault and violence against women. That someone could think to post a picture of a dead woman who appears to be shot in the head with the tagline, “I like her for her brains,” or a woman lying at the bottom of the stairs with the line, “Next time, don’t get pregnant,” is enough to give any optimist pause. Even worse is that such hateful misogyny could be considered humor. And the fact that up until now Facebook didn’t classify this as “hate speech” means that the people behind these images and pages had their sexism validated and accepted.