Dec 012011

Once again this year, the Feminist Peace Network is proud to participate in the Take Back The Tech campaign which takes place concurrently with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence that runs from November 25-December 10. 

While the internet is an extraordinary tool for sharing information and connecting with other people, it is also a readily available means of harassing and intimidating people. Women are subjected to an astounding amount of harassment and threatening behavior on the internet and in the ten years I’ve been publishing my work electronically, I have received all manner of hate mail, from the annoying, “Go back to the kitchen” to the death threats that I turned over to law enforcement.

I am hardly alone in this.  It has gotten so bad that blogger and activist Sady Doyle recently started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #MenCallMeThings to raise awareness about just how bad it is.  As Doyle explained on her blog,

It doesn’t matter how uniquely charming and witty and acquainted with various fine bourbons you are. Are you a woman? Then they don’t like you.And they especially don’t like you telling them what to do. By, for example, asking them to cut it out with the misogyny.

What I got, friends, were comments. Comments about myself. And blogs about myself. And message-board discussions, also about myself. And e-mails. What I got was what every woman (feminist or not) and openly anti-sexist person (woman or not) on this our Internet gets: I got targeted. With threats, with insults, with smear campaigns, with attempts to threaten my employment or credibility or just general ability to get through the day with a healthy attitude and a minimal amount of insult.

Although as a matter of policy, I usually don’t publish blatantly misogynist comments or respond to them,  they are still in my inbox and they throw my mind off kilter sometimes to the point where I can’t write.  While I know of course that they don’t reflect on me, these toxic missives sometimes still get under my skin, making me both angry and despairing.  Comments such as,

All of u stupid b*****. You don`t wanna cook on Thanksgiving Day, then you don`t eat!!! Go to McD and get a burger with large fries, as I am sure all of are overweight/anorexic.


Just sick and tired of all you good for nothing educatedbut illitrate “feminists” (sic) taking stats out of your hats like some magician.

are not enabling to say the least. (Also sadly, correct spelling and basic grammar competence tend to be quite optional in hate mail.)

On a personal level, it is hard to understand how on earth  the men who write these comments could possibly think saying such things are acceptable,  But when I wake up at three in the morning pondering why this is, it doesn’t take much to realize  that the answer lies in large part in the relentless sexist and misogynist messaging that permeates our media, on radio and television, in movies and video games and on the internet.

One website that has recently come under fire for enabling the acceptability of misogynist hate speech is Facebook.  For a long time, they have allowed all manner of pro-rape pages, justifying them as expressions of free speech. It finally took a massive social media campaign to get them to begin to re-examine their policy.  As this article on ZDNet explains,

It only took two long months, over 186,000 signatures on a petition to Mark Zuckerberg, and finally a furious Twitter campaign to get Facebook to remove Pages that graphically celebrated and encouraged rape and sexual violence.

However, the article continues,

The social media behemoth has a massive problem with sex. This is exactly what happens when a social network refuses to roll up its sleeves and define sexual expression in its Terms. Specifically, I mean Facebook’s urgent need to define different types of sexual speech or expression as healthy or harmful to its community.

Sex is the Achilles’ Heel of all social businesses. And to that end, transparency can be a cruel mistress.

With zero tolerance for porn and a refusal to define it, Facebook has deleted breast cancer survivor communities (labeling one breast cancer survivor page as “pornography”), retail business pages, individual profiles of human sexuality teachers, pages for authors and actors, photos of LGBT couples kissing (for which Facebook just apologized), and even the occasional hapless user’s profile who has the misfortune of having someone else post porn on their Wall.

With no comprehensible or clear methodology around sexual speech, we see pages deleted that discuss female sexuality, while pages that joke about and encourage raping women and girls rack up the likes.

Not to mention – a petition, and two months, and a whole lotta common sense about doing the right thing with over-the-top troll pages? Just how incompetently can you run your product, Facebook? Very, apparently.

A few weeks ago I discovered for myself that this is indeed true when I received a letter from Facebook telling me they had removed something that I had posted which they claimed violated their terms of service.  The letter read,


Content that you shared on Facebook has been removed because it violated Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Shares that contain nudity, pornography, or graphic sexual content, are not permitted on Facebook.

This message serves as a warning. Additional violations may result in the termination of your account. Please read the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities carefully and refrain from posting abusive material in the future. Thanks in advance for your understanding and cooperation.

The Facebook Team

Ominous sounding indeed.  They didn’t tell me what they found offensive, but the only thing that they removed so far as I know was a link to another page called “Occupy A Vagina” which I found offensive and that I wanted to make other people aware of.  In other words, I wanted to make others aware that another Facebook page was offensive, so I got warned.  And the Occupy A Vagina page remained up, despite numerous people reporting it as offensive.  According to the page’s author who claims to be female, it is supposed to be a joke.  Not, however, one most rape victims would likely laugh at.

The really disturbing part of this is that one might think that it was just a bad call by their filtering system that can be easily explained. But who do you contact to point out the error?  Unfortunately, Facebook’s customer service policy seems to be a cross between frat house and CIA rendition which translates to we can come after you for totally absurd reasons and there is nothing you can do about it and we won’t even talk to you.  You can’t explain because Facebook makes it all but impossible to communicate with them–no contact form, no email, no phone number.

Via the electronic rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, I was able to obtain a phone number.  But when you press the option for customer service, you get a recording telling you they don’t offer customer service by phone and referring you back to the website where there wasn’t any way to contact them in the first place. Like I said, frat house meets rendition policy.

I am hardly alone in ending up in Facebook’s customer terms of service black hole, see here and here.  But that doesn’t make it better.  The effect of receiving a notice like that is chilling.  For days I hesitated to post  things to Facebook.  It is beyond ironic that they tsked tsked me for posting something they deemed inappropriate when what was inappropriate was other Facebook content which they left alone.  Too many people have been victimized by their idiotic filters and lack of customer service and the result is that those of us who are working full time to address misogyny and sexual violence are being victimized while those who promote it still have a free run on Facebook.

I’ve been publishing my work on the internet for ten years now.  When I first began, I published my work primarily on other websites.  But after a particularly bad trolling attack (800 comments long) on one website which the website’s owners basically blew off, it became very clear to me that it was absolutely necessary to have a website where that was not acceptable. Women control only a very small percentage of the media, but at least on the internet, we can create our own misogyny-free writing spaces and as I have pointed out many times before it is crucial to support these spaces and to speak out when websites like Facebook blatantly allow misogynist hatred to be perpetuated.

 December 1, 2011  Posted by on December 1, 2011

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