‘ABSOLUTELY SILENCING WOMEN’
Women had accounts banned from Facebook for responding to male trolls with sentences like ‘men are trash,’ in part because the company classifies white men as a protected group.
When comic Marcia Belsky sarcastically replied “men are scum” to a friend’s Facebook post back in October, she never anticipated being banned from the platform for 30 days.
That was exactly what happened.
Belsky was shocked at the severity of the punishment considering her relatively innocuous comment, and immediately spoke to her fellow female friends about the ordeal. They could relate.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, countless women have taken to Facebook to express their frustration and disappointment with men and have been promptly shut down or silenced, banned from the platform for periods ranging from one to seven days.
Women have posted things as bland as “men ain’t shit,” “all men are ugly,” and even “all men are allegedly ugly” and had their posts removed. They’ve been locked out of their accounts for suggesting that, since “all men are ugly,” country music star Blake Shelton “winning the sexiest man isn’t a triumph.”
“I personally posted men are scum in November and I received a seven-day ban. It’s still ongoing. Two days and 23 hours left,” said comedian Alison Klemp.
Kayla Avery, a comedian in Boston, said she’s been banned close to 10 times by Facebook and is serving out the end of her third 30-day ban.
One of the first times she got banned was when her page was flooded with male trolls calling her derogatory and sexist terms. Avery posted “men continue to be the worst” she said, because she said she “felt helpless to stop their hate.”
“There was one guy who was threatening to find my house and beat me up,” she said. “I got banned before I could even successfully report it.”
In late November, after the issue was raised in a private Facebook group of nearly 500 female comedians, women pledged to post some variation of “men are scum” to Facebook on Nov. 24 in order to stage a protest. Nearly every women who carried out the pledge was banned.
“It wasn’t the best protest because it clearly didn’t work,” said Klemp. Avery said she is still suffering the consequences after posting “men are trash” on that day.
On Nov. 28 a Twitter thread by comedian Rae Sanni documenting her experience of being banned by Facebook went viral and countless other women began to share their stories.
The problem has become so widespread that Avery even created a website to document these women’s tales. The site, FacebookJailed.com, shares women’s experiences of being punished by Facebook for making benign comments about men or standing up to trolls, sometimes juxtaposed with Facebook’s inaction against men who have hurled insults or racial slurs back.
“Comedian and writer Rae Sanni has been targeted by nazi trolls who hurled dozens of threatening and violent messages and comments at her for days,” a recent post reads. “Rae Sanni was banned by Facebook while her abusers are free to say sh*t like this without being in violation of community standards.”
The post features screenshots provided by Sanni where Facebook does not deem comments calling her the N-word hate speech.
When reached for comment a Facebook spokesperson said that the company is working hard to remedy any issues related to harassment on the platform and stipulated that all posts that violate community standards are removed.
When asked why a statement such as “men are scum” would violate community standards, a Facebook spokesperson said that the statement was an attack and hate speech toward a protected group and so it would rightfully be taken down.
As ProPublica revealed in an investigation in June, white men are listed as a protected group by the platform.
A Facebook spokesperson clarified that this is because all genders, races, and religions are all protected characteristics under Facebook’s current policy. However, it’s clear that even with 7,000 Facebook content moderators, things slip through the cracks.
Female comedians have speculated that it’s internalized misogyny on the behalf of Facebook’s content moderation team that leads to punishment such as banning to be doled out unequally. Several have tried posting “women are scum,” had their friends report the posts, and subsequently suffered zero consequences.
While this explanation is tidy, it’s almost certainly false. Facebook employees receive extensive training around specific issues and their work is regularly reviewed to account for any personal biases.
But the system is far from perfect.
One issue with the way Facebook moderators currently review posts is that many “problematic” posts are viewed individually, without context because of privacy concerns. Facebook moderators also aren’t able to view personal or demographic information about the original poster. This means that they sometimes don’t know whether a piece of content was posted by a black queer woman or a white straight male.
It also means the moderators don’t know whether the poster has a history of spreading messages related to white supremacy, or has participated in targeted harassment campaigns against specific groups before.
With hate speech in particular, the person writing the post is just as relevant as what is being said. The fact that Facebook’s moderators aren’t always given this information means that sometimes benign statements can be misinterpreted, and vice versa.
Context also matters. One reason female comics often seem to run afoul of Facebook’s guidelines is that the company’s content moderators fail to recognize the humor in their posts. Popular tropes such as “ban men” are interpreted literally under Facebook’s current set of community standards, and women suffer the consequences for attempting to express themselves.
In the past, ironic misandry has been a popular way for women to deal with living in a world where they’re exposed to frequent abuse at the hands of powerful men. Yet, if a woman takes to Facebook to vent about how she “wants to imprison men and milk them for their male tears,” she could quickly lose access to her account.
Trolls know this. “The ironic thing about Literal Nazis is that they have weaponized taking things literally,” BuzzFeed writer Katie Notopoulos wrote recently.
Feigning outrage at statements that were clearly not written to be interpreted that way has become a favored tactic of the alt-right, Gamergate, and movements known for their coordinated harassment efforts. When moderators can’t make this distinction they punish innocent parties and embolden trolls.
Meanwhile, outright false and defamatory information—like Pizzagate communities accusing private citizens of pedophilia because of their political beliefs—still thrive on the service.
Facebook’s spokesperson stressed that it was working on a fix to this and the company plans to look at ways to eventually apply its policies in a more granular way. In the future it hopes to take into account the history of oppression with different genders and ethnicities, etc. when reviewing posts, but stressed that Facebook is a global platform.
In the meantime, two women who are both not in the comedy world but have had their content flagged or removed said the bans have made them feel much less comfortable posting on Facebook about sensitive topics like the #MeToo movement.
Avery said that posting on Facebook, no matter what issue, can feel like walking across a minefield.
“I get cold feet to post stuff, especially if I try to share something that’s going on that I want to bring attention to. because I feel like I’m going to get in trouble somehow,” she said. “Sharing anything is nerve racking. It’s like, ‘What’s ok? What’s not ok? What’s going to cross the line this time?’ It makes me feel crazy, like Facebook is gaslighting us.”
Heather Fink, also a female comedian, said the problem has also begun to spread to Instagram. She has had several posts there removed where she said she was simply talking about her Facebook ban and now no longer trusts the platform to ensure her voice is heard.
The #MeToo movement has been perpetuated via social media thanks to the open nature of most platforms and the ability for women to speak out publicly in their own words. If Facebook’s community guidelines are being enforced irregularly, whether intentional or not, women say it stifles their ability to speak truth to power and share their stories.
“Social media is how we communicate. Preventing women from expressing themselves like this is an intimidation tactic,” said Meredith, a social-media strategist who has had several of her friends banned.
“This feels like a deliberate and systematic act—and whether it was or it wasn’t, it needs to be addressed publicly by Facebook and Instagram, especially as we’ve seen plenty of examples of true, dangerous hate speech remaining on these platforms even after being reported.”
Avery said Facebook’s banning policy itself ties into the #MeToo movement.
“How else can we have a genuine reaction to what’s going on?” Avery said. “Facebook is absolutely silencing women.”