Facebook is a private company that functions largely as a public space. Should we be policing its content?
Over the weekend, Facebook decided to remove a slew of creepy, rapey, and in some cases violent pages with titles like "Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you dont want to wake her up" or “Whats 10 inches and gets girls to have sex with me? my knife.” They featured comments (from guys) like "She deserves a good backhander!" and appreciative replies (from gals) like "pahahaha :P" After months of Facebook ignoring the pleas to take down the pages, anti-Facebook campaigns kicked into high gear. Change.org created a petition, and bloggers declared November 2 a day of action on Twitter. Facebook finally acquiesced.
Online activists rightly pointed out the power of social media to create change. But the victory sets a disturbing precedent. Facebook is a private company that functions largely as a public space. Given that Facebook's comments are now searchable through Google, its profiles are fair game for employers, and its photos can be used against you in court, should we have a right to police its content? And if Facebook's platform is a de facto public space, shouldn't it be protected under First Amendment rights?
Granted, people disgusted by these pages pointed out glaring hypocrisies in Facebook's policy. The site’s Terms of Service bans language that is “hateful, threatening,” or contains “graphic or gratuitous violence." Users have also been kicked off for posting photos that are "too sexy," an offense that seems far more mild than advocating sexual assault. Given Facebook's guidelines, a request to remove the pages seems justified. But perhaps the question should be not whether Facebook's moderators are inconsistent, but whether its policies make any sense at all.
For its users, Facebook exists in a purgatory between public and private, especially when it comes to bigotry. Because the site requires real names, many of us remember to reign in our more incendiary opinions. Yet some Facebookers lack a filter when they're posting status updates or photo comments. They'll write the same racist or sexist jokes they would crack privately to a group of friends, without realizing that teachers, parents, employers, and journalists are listening, too. Judging by the hideous comment threads on some of these pro-rape pages, people feel even more liberated in a group setting.
As the uses and role of Facebook evolve, the site is likely going to have to update its policy to reflect its role as an increasingly public space. Meanwhile, online activists would benefit from exposing (then shaming) the existence of these unusually raw displays of misogyny, racism and homophobia, rather than scrambling to pull them down. When it comes to hate speech in public, bigots often end up hanging themselves.