Safety Online for Women

13th October 2014

The Unsafety Net: How Social Media Turned Against Women Excerpts from an in-depth article in The Atlantic on the failure of social media companies to address safety issues for women.

“In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called ‘nigger’ so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore,” explains attorney and legal analyst Imani Gandy. “Let’s just say that my ‘nigger cunt’ cup runneth over.”

In an increasing number of countries, rapists are now filming their rapes on cell phones so they can blackmail victims out of reporting the crimes.

A Facebook user posted a video documenting the gang rape of a woman by the side of a road in Malaysia. The six minutes of graphic footage were live for more than three weeks, during which Facebook moderators declined repeated requests for removal. It had been viewed hundreds of times before a reader of Soraya’s forwarded the video to [us] with a request for help. We notified a contact on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board, and only then was the video taken offline.

When it comes to copyright and intellectual property interests, companies are highly responsive… But, says Jan Moolman, who coordinates the Association of Progressive Communications’s women’s rights division, “‘garden variety’ violence against women—clearly human rights violations—frequently get a lukewarm response until it becomes an issue of bad press.”

Soraya, Bates, and Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women, Action, and Media, a media justice advocacy group, joined forces and launched a social media campaign designed to attract advertisers’ attention. The ultimate goal was to press Facebook to recognize explicit violence against women as a violation of its own prohibitions against hate speech, graphic violence, and harassment. Within a day of beginning the campaign, 160 organizations and corporations had co-signed a public letter, and in less than a week, more than 60,000 tweets were shared using the campaign’s #FBrape hashtag. Nissan was the first company to pull its advertising dollars from Facebook altogether.

Southworth calls [Facebook’s] representatives “thoughtful, passionate, concerned, and straddling the line between free speech and safety.” But, sometimes, progress feels slow. “The teams who handle these cases are just swamped,” she explained.

Researchers and industry experts are beginning to consider the effects of that context. Ninety percent of tech employees are men. At the most senior levels, that number goes up to 96 percent. Eight-nine percent of startup leadership teams are all male.

It’s not hard to imagine how unconscious biases might affect systems architecture, including the ways companies handle moderation requests.

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