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Scarlett Hawkins experienced Facebook’s sickeningly ineffectual response to revenge porn, a growing issue on social media.
I had never seen it in the (digital) flesh before. Sure, I had enough of an academic understanding of the concept that my stance was all neatly determined… but to witness it in the digital sphere directly? That was different.
The link looked like your standard generic link that could be the most sensuous video you’ve ever seen or a virus. The caption, however, left no room for interpretation: a member of my international backpacking Facebook group had used it to post revenge porn of his ex-girlfriend.
To encounter revenge porn in the wild, wild web was jarring, confronting, and left me in disgust. In spite of my refusal to open the link and the strongly-worded reprimand I posted as an attached comment, I was still an accessory to this woman’s humiliation. I clicked my way through Facebook’s reporting web form, which, to this day, lacks a subheading for “revenge porn”. Instead, I reported the video under the guidelines of its harassment policy: after all, the poster had directly identified his relationship to the woman and was actively trying to amass page views to shame her across all corners of the globe.
My reply from Facebook was swift, and disappointing. The video was deemed to be perfectly within the website’s guidelines and as such, would not be interfered with by Facebook in any way. I was given the unhelpful suggestion of blocking the poster, which proved unnecessary as the administrators of the group shortly thereafter deleted the post. That they had been required to do so because Facebook would not was a revolting revelation.
Many women have claimed that digital spaces are increasingly hostile towards them by virtue of gender and Facebook is no exception. In this instance the social media platform took no issue with a woman’s body being plastered across its servers without consent, like a scarlet letter. Even more disappointing was its approach to policing its own digital sphere. Facebook has been known to transcend “harm by indifference” and fall directly into “active harm”.
Clementine Ford is a Melbourne-based feminist writer with almost fifty thousand Facebook fans to her page. Following a post of hers that was no more controversial than any other she has written, Ford was subjected to a veritable tsunami of male harassment: threats to rape her, kill her, dox her private details (including home address) for all the world to see. One poster suggested she sit on a butcher’s knife so her genitals would be too mangled to ever reproduce. Ford, who has written extensively on feminism and harassment for many years, correctly identified that these messages were sent as a means of frightening her into a submissive silence on the discourse to which she is an expert.
However, Ford refused to be cowed by such intimidation. Instead, she used her substantial reach to openly share these private messages on her public page, without obscuring the names of the men who spewed such venom from their screen to hers.
Within days of her campaign to reclaim her digital autonomy, Ford was banned from her own Facebook page. The reason? “Violating community standards.” For posting screen caps of the violent, threatening messages of which she was the recipient.
An online petition was launched in response to this misguided victim-blaming and Ford’s page was eventually reinstated. A message had been rendered clear that could in no way be undone: either Facebook’s algorithms for identifying harassment posts are too flawed to function adequately and are therefore an insufficient pretense of combating harassment; or those responsible for evaluating such complaints simply lack empathy for the victimised women on its platform.
Whether Facebook’s approach falls more beneath the former or the latter, I simply cannot presume. Whilst I am more than willing to forgive any number of glitches or inconveniences from a technological or advertising perspective when using Facebook, there is a line that must be drawn. It is worrisome to realise that I have absolutely no faith in the current harassment reporting system as it stands.
I’m sure the woman depicted in the video which had, at the time of posting, tabulated some several thousand views, would agree.