How Facebook Handles Threats Against Women—And How It Handled Its Female Employees

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"How Facebook Handles Threats Against Women—And How It Handled Its Female Employees"

Over at Wired, entertainment editor Laura Hudson (formerly the editor in chief of Comics Alliance) explores the understandable confusion that women who find themselves the target of violent threats on Facebook feel about Facebook’s refusal to take down some of that content, despite the clear statements in its terms of use that forbid bullying or the use of threats or hate speech against other users. Facebook, which responded to Hudson’s request for comment, didn’t clarify things as much as they seem to hope that they might:

Wired reached out to Facebook for a comment, and a representative clarified the site’s position:

“We take our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously and react quickly to remove reported content that violates our policies. In general, attempts at humor, even disgusting and distasteful ones, do not violate our policies. When real threats or statements of hate are made, however, we will remove them. We encourage people to report anything they feel violates our policies using the report links located throughout the site.”

What’s a threat and what’s a joke are both subjective things that depend on both the intent of the speaker and what’s heard by the person who is the target of their speech. What Facebook is effectively saying with this decision calculus that it’s willing to give more deference to speakers who say that they’re trying to be funny—a rationale that can be a very convenient shield for people who don’t want to be responsible for how their speech is received—than the fear of people who feel threatened. A joke doesn’t have to be “real” or effective in the same way a threat apparently does, a hugely subjective standard, to be actionable.

After I read Laura’s post, I read Melissa Gira Grant’s review of Katherine Losse’s memoir of working at Facebook, The Boy Kings. Grant urges us to recall Facebook’s origins as a site that scraped photos of women from existing databases and its transition to a site that got women to give up those images of themselves voluntarily. And she explains how Losse’s experience was part of a larger organizational disdain for customer service, even as a comfortable customer service experience was integral to the idea of getting people to be excited to and feel safe about sharing images and accounts of their personal lives online:

Facebook’s most valued employees—software engineers—relied on customer support staff largely in order to avoid direct contact with Facebook’s users. Rather than valuing their work as vital to operations, Facebook’s technical staff looked down on the support team, as if they were not much better than users themselves. “Personal contact with customers,” Losse writes, was viewed by the engineers as something “that couldn’t be automated, a dim reminder of the pre-industrial era…”…Women workers at Facebook, the customer service buffer between programmers and users, were charged with the social upkeep of this “safe space.” Hundreds of times a day, Facebook users would email Losse and the support team to ask, “What does poking mean?” “We always responded innocently,” Losse writes. “Being coy, not admitting the libidinal urges driving much of the site’s usage, was professionally necessary, a way to differentiate Facebook from the cheap and overtly sexual vibes of MySpace.”

It’s not particularly surprising to me that an organization that started with a culture of putting women in subordinate service positions, that regarded customer service as an irritant, and that’s reliant on getting people to put up data on the site might end up with some of the problems that Facebook has now. All of those tendencies militate against taking down content, against taking customer complaints seriously, and against valuing women’s perspectives over the overall needs of the site. But if Facebook continues to want women to feel safe living their digital lives openly on its platform, it may have to start communicating more clearly, and being more responsive, to women who feel threatened on its digital streets.

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