Free Speech or Hate Speech: You Be The Judge

If you look for it, you’ll find a whole lot of garbage on Facebook.  Not a day goes by when Iamerican-express-audible-facebook-rape don’t come across something that’s a bit (or more than a bit) distasteful and makes me cringe.  Yes, that includes some pretty hateful things and often racist or sexist memes, and violent pictures.  Recently there’s been a new controversy where an image (see right) was floating around Facebook and reported by many and asked to be taken down.  In response, Facebook declined to pull the image because it didn’t necessarily violate their rules.  Facebook claims it’s freedom of speech; many groups or companies have railed together and call it hate speech.  13 different brands have pulled their advertising over the issue, including car company Nissan, and insurance company Nationwide.  More than 40 Feminist groups and sympathizers are now calling for an “unfriending” movement on Facebook until images like the above are taken down.

A tricky problem with the way Facebook advertising works is advertisers pay to have their ads show up on the side bar of your feed.  Then when you scroll down and take a screen shot of something on the site, advertisers on the side are seen directly next to the pictures and then they appear to be associated with those offensive pictures.  They don’t have control over what pictures or statuses they are seen next to.  So their choices are: to advertise blindly (to quite a large audience) or take a stand and dictate what Facebook can post at all.

Facebook does regulate what sort of content is allowed on their site, and they have people working to take down images that violate those rules.  Sometimes images like breastfeeding or recently a breast cancer survivor’s pictures was taken down, because it violated their policy of no nudity.  Is it fair that inspiring posts like breast cancer images are taken down and rape memes get to stay? Not really, but those are the rules..

Facebook has released a statement over the controversy; here is some excerpts for their statement:

“we [..] work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection.  This requires us to make difficult decisions and balance concerns about free expression and community respect.  We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial. We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying)….Facebook prohibits ‘hate speech.’  While there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech, as a platform we define the term to mean direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease. We work hard to remove hate speech quickly, however there are instances of offensive content, including distasteful humor, that are not hate speech according to our definition.”

While the image above is certainly offensive, it’s a slippery slope when you call for censoring any, all, or some things that you find offensive.  Just because its offensive doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have the right to say it and share it.  Is someone a terrible person to joke about rape?  Yes, certainly.  Should it be banned from Facebook?  That I’m not so sure.  Once you start censoring this image because it’s just not funny, then it opens the door to censor religious or pro gay or anti-gay or racial jokes or whatever kind of jokes out there because you think aren’t funny and pretty darn offensive.  What I deem as distasteful, you may laugh and think it’s no big deal, or the other way around.

There’s also the slippery slope that you can get into where yes this image specifically says the word ‘rape,’ but what about images that don’t say the word, but give an innuendo?  There are certainly plenty of jokes out there that give innuendos of sexism or racism or whatever, but they aren’t clear-cut or even agreed upon if they mean what we think they mean in the first place.  I remember a while ago an advertisement was pulled from magazines because it used the word “savage” next to a black man.  Well, there was a whole controversy and much disagreement on whether that word was specifically racist towards black men.  Some people didn’t get the undertones.  That’s just one example.  Should we censor all posts on Facebook because they may or may not be offensive and they may or may not have an undertone of something bad?  It’d be a perfect world if all humans were educated in ‘Offensive 101’ or chose to be kind- but that world certainly doesn’t include Facebook as we know it today.

pontiac ad

Check out the subtle rape innuendo in this above vintage advertisement.. Should this also be banned because it suggests the thought of rape in the man’s creepy gaze at the unsuspecting woman?  Could there be a question on whether this is actually hinting at rape, or is it possible that it could be referring to consensual sexual activity?  What should Facebook do in this instance?  Remember they need to make decisions based on all the things that could arise in the future.

The other hard part about Facebook is you just can’t not look at something because you don’t like it.  This happens a lot when people get offended by breastfeeding or bikini clad pictures that run across your feeds.  Breastfeeding pictures are another subject of contention on Facebook, which are highly reported and removed all the time.  (Breastfeeding pictures violate Facebook rules when a child isn’t actively nursing or a picture shows areola).  So for instance when a kid is half off the breast Facebook just automatically takes them down as opposed to paying people to distinguish whether this is in violation or not.  And it’s not like you can just “unfriend” the post or filter what sorts of things you don’t want to see, because the way Facebook works (and works so well) is companies and groups make their pictures public, so every time a person comments or likes, even if the comment is one that shows a person’s distaste for the picture or status, it still shows up in their feeds and is shared with all their friends.  I often look at comments on a breastfeeding page I follow and they are filled with things like, “why don’t you just unfollow if you don’t like to see it.”  Well, the thing is, it’s not designed to work like that.  Facebook is designed so things go “viral” without us even really meaning them to.

I think unfortunately as much as I hate to say this and as much as would like to see sexist and rape “jokes” eliminated from societal view of being funny at all, then that also means we’d have to remove basically any sexist joke, any joke about murder any joke about drugs or jay-walking or anything that is illegal activity or that makes us a bit uncomfortable.  Me personally, I can’t stand to see pictures of bloody abused animals go across my screen, but just because they make me uncomfortable doesn’t mean they are violating any rules.  The best advice is to unfriend or hide people who are prone to posting things you don’t like.

What do you think? Are rape jokes a part of free speech or are they hate speech?  And should they be forced to be removed from Facebook all together?  As long as they don’t violate things that are against Facebook’s specific policies like nudity or specific harassment, for example saying, “so and so (insert specific name) needs to be raped,” then it isn’t in true violation as the rules are currently defined.  Part of the definition of hate speech is something that incites violence against a person or group; but whether the above image actually incites actions or not is something that is certainly central to this debate and finding the answer to the question above.

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2 responses to “Free Speech or Hate Speech: You Be The Judge

  1. Pingback: Going Beyond The Surface, and Maybe I know Nothing | From Playgrounds To Politics

  2. What I find so bad about the picture is there sheer casualness of it. It’s not overtly hateful, it’s lazy and complacent. If the poster had screamed “let’s go rape this woman” then poeple would make an instant decision that this is wrong and hateful – they would probably sit up and go “whoaa there!”. But this image slides in between all the other stuff one sees in a day – unnoticed and instantly forgotten. But it adds up. It adds up to a pervasive male assumption that women are dirt. There’s not much you can for the grown men (sorry ungrown men) who post this stuff, but I have 2 teenage sons and I fear for their progress when they are exposed to, and chuckle at this kind of thing.

    I make no bones about it, I monitor their facebook pages, and when they stray in this direction -I come down hard on them. I changed the password on the wifi for a week because of this sort of thing. It lead to a deep discussion of the issue. The point got made, he understood and he was allowed back on.

    It’s the best I could do.

    Thanks for this piece, very interesting. I didn’t comment on people’s objection to breast feeding in public or in pictures because I cannot express my anger in polite English.

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