WAM versus Facebook: Tallying the Score


The dust is still settling from Facebook’s encounter with the women’s rights organization Women, Action and the Media (WAM!) and the Everyday Sexism Project (ESP) last week, but activists are already tallying their accomplishments.

According to an opinion piece by WAM! activist Soraya Chemaly that was published on CNN’s website last Friday, the fight to get the media company to remove hate speech and violent content from its pages actually began in the fall of 2012. What may have seemed to the women’s rights activists as a straightforward request for the media company to remove and monitor offending content became a six-month-long process that went nowhere.

Chemaly says part of the problem had to do with Facebook’s own definition of violence against women.

“I came across ‘humor’ pages with names like ‘Raping Your Girlfriend,’ and text and images of popular rape memes depicting about-to-be-raped, incapacitated girls,” says Chemaly, as well as “videos of girls and women frightened, humiliated, bruised, beaten, raped, gang raped, bathed in blood, and, in a recently publicized case, beheaded.” Many of these pages were indexed under Facebook’s “humor” classification.

The images were so graphic and disturbing that although WAM! retains examples on its website, viewers must pass through a second link that warns them of the content before viewing the images. Suffice it to say that many sensitive viewers don’t make it through the entire list of photographic examples without closing the link.

On May 21, WAM and its affiliates started a different line of attack: First, they sent an open letter to the social media giant advising it that activists would be contacting its advertisers and urging companies to boycott Facebook. And so that the reason was clear, activists would also be including  screenshots of the violent content that was appearing beside their clients’ ads. Lastly, WAM devised an unforgettable Twitter hashtag phrase, #FBrape, for supporters to use when contacting advertisers for their support.   

The campaign was a success. With more than a dozen advertisers pulling their ads, it took little more than a than a week before Facebook caved. In a carefully worded letter to the public, Facebook acknowledged its systems “to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively” as it had hoped.

Facebook_policies_WAM_logo_WAM_3To be clear, the dozen or so that pulled their ads represent a very small number of Facebook’s advertisers and none represent the financial clout that Facebook’s top thirty 2012 advertisers would have been able to leverage. But Women, Action and the Media and Everyday Sexism Project managed something that few have ever accomplished: a frank and productive discussion with Facebook about its posting guidelines and what really constitutes free speech. And, just as valuable, it inspired the public to take a stand.

So, even though it may be a bit soon in the process, we thought we’d do a tally of how things stand for the media giant, and for women’s rights this week:

It’s working – well, sort of

Facebook got right to work last week and began taking down and halting offending content. Apparently in its zealousness however, it accidentally locked out a campaigner of WAM!’s Australian sister site, Destroy the Joint, when she attempted to post an example of offending content and link to WAM! After The Guardian newspaper caught the story, Facebook admitted it had erred, saying that “the  link was blocked for a very short period of time but systems were quickly restored.”

Destroy the Joint’s odd-sounding Aussie name relates to a comment made by broadcaster Alan Jones who has been on Destroy’s radar for anti-feminist comments. Its tagline says it all:

“This page is for people who are sick of the sexism dished out to women in Australia, whether they be our Prime Minister or any other woman.”

The lessons of Occupy Wall Street, 2.0

Social activists are refining their skills for the new millennium. The lessons of Occupy Wall Street were well learned: If you want action, use the system. Don’t just occupy the space, convince advertisers that for the sake of their own reputation they need to join your mission as well. WAM!’s one-on-one campaign to change Facebook’s rules on misogynistic images started last fall. Yet it took less than two weeks of emails, letters and calls to advertisers to get the job done.

Feminism may be alive and well, but so is modesty

While it has now tightened its policies regarding misogyny, it’s unlikely that Facebook will change its policies concerning images that show women’s breasts, reconstructive surgery and breastfeeding that WAM! used in its protest to demonstrate what it felt was an imbalanced monitoring process.

The message: While feminism may appear to be roaring back, modesty still has value – or, at least, that is what Facebook is hearing.

Facebook: Hire those gals

Successful marketing is an art, and so is record-fast social media campaigning. WAM!’s success has been credited to a whole lot of angry women who wanted something done. But the truth is, their success wouldn’t have happened quite as fluidly if it hadn’t been for the meticulous timing and focus of its organizers, something that in the past, Facebook has championed as well. It may take a while for Facebook to live down the fact that it took 6 months for it to remove this kind of content, but it’s notable that it did, and now seems committed to winning back the support of its clients and users.

Images courtesy of WAM!

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Leave a Reply