By Ben Norton
Jan 15, 2014
Is Facebook flirting with fascism? The question might prove difficult to answer with a resounding “yes or no,” but, to those who have been keeping track of its recent censorship practices, the answer appears to lean heavily toward the affirmative.
Yesterday, on 9 January 2014, after over five years of operation, popular Facebook page Anarchist Memes was permanently taken down by Facebook. With approximately 90,000 likes and hundreds of comments each day, Anarchist Memes established itself as one of the radical left’s most prominent Facebook pages. It posted feminist, anti-racist, pro-LGBT*QA, and anti-capitalist content numerous times a day. For years, the page and its administrators experienced endless harassment and trolling, yet it demonstrated an outstanding, resolute commitment to establishing a safe, non-oppressive digital environment. Racism, misogyny, cisheterosexism, ableism, classism, anti-Islamic prejudice, and other forms of bigotry were never tolerated. The page’s many administrators have, true to the cooperative anarchist tradition, created a democratic system of accountability to determine how to delete particular oppressive comments, as to prevent needless censorship while simultaneously creating a genuinely non-threatening, non-hierarchical space for readers—a true rarity on the internet today.
Facebook, nonetheless, demonstrated on numerous occasions that such a feminist, anti-racist, anti-cisheteronormative environment would not be tolerated. The page was flagged numerous times for content that “violated” Facebook’s Community Standards and “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” rather ambiguously delineated guidelines that suggest a commitment to liberal principles without dabbling in the difficulties that come with concretely articulating the specific moral values on which those principles are based. Facebook claims to be opposed to expression that supports “Violence and Threats,” “Bullying and Harassment,” “Hate Speech,” “Graphic Content,” and “Nudity and Pornography.” In actual practice, however, it is clear that the company is only opposed to particular kinds of violence, harassment, hate speech, and more.
Just a few months ago, Facebook generated much controversy for its intransigent refusal to remove photos glorifying rape and violence against women. Soraya Chemaly wrote of “Facebook’s big misogyny problem,” noting Facebook takes no issue in hosting pages like “I kill b**ches like you” and “Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice,” featuring scores of photos of beaten women. These individual pages were taken down as a result of the controversy the article generated, yet, today, many similar misogynist pages still exist. Spreading even more egg on its face, Facebook proceeded to lash out against those critiquing its censorship practices, blocking administrators of feminist pages who uploaded pictures protesting the site’s misogyny.
A page titled “Rapebook” was formed to protest Facebook’s misogynist practices. It explained that Facebook had no problem with “collections of pictures of naked children or very graphical [sic] pictures of victims of all sorts of violence and incidents.” After a bit of press coverage was generated around this issue, Facebook quickly deleted the child porn, but allowed pages “lathered with sexually explicit comments” to continue posting, unhindered. Rapebook began to report content that “promote[d] hate speech towards minorities” or took “enjoyment in crimes like rape and murder,” but Facebook refused to remove the material, calling it “controversial humor.”
At the same moment, Facebook had no problem targeting what was obviously feminist activism. In the words of Rapebook administrators, it will “leave a picture of a woman who lies, obviously physically hurt, at the bottom of stairs, captioned ‘next time don’t get pregnant’. At the same time Facebook will delete a picture, taken from a news item, of a woman who displayed her breasts at a political protest and temporarily ban all the administrators of a page that displayed it.” Administrators of pages that regularly promoted violence and threats, bullying and harassment, hate speech, and graphic content subsequently sicced their fans on the administrators of Rapebook. The latter began to regularly receive death threats, harassment, and more explicit content on their page, but Facebook insisted that such comments did not entail violations of its hallowed “Community Standards.”
Rapebook declared itself no longer active on 5 April 2013, writing it had “achieved what it was set up to do. It has shown that Facebook’s terms and conditions are null and void. We will leave the rest of the work for Facebook to do – or not.” Much to the chagrin of any seeker of justice, it appears as though Facebook has chosen the “or not” option.
Anarchist Memes has been one among Facebook’s many political targets. The company’s attack on the page stands as a salient example of how Facebook’s Community Double Standards work in actual practice. In the past several years, Facebook has removed harmless material and banned administrators many a time. In the past months, this censorship has been particularly vehement, with several instances of the company removing Anarchist Memes’ content. In each incident, Facebook’s reasoning was needlessly severe at best, flagrantly reactionary at worst.
In the first incident, Anarchist Memes posted a picture of a Klansman who had accidentally set himself, instead of a large wooden cross, on fire, accompanied by the words “IRONY, it strikes at the best of times.” Facebook took the picture down, claiming it violates its community standards.
In the second incident, Facebook took down a picture featuring a portrait of famous Ukrainian anarchist communist Nestor Mahkno with the text “You may be anti-racist… but are you shoot anti-Semites on sight anti-racist?” Again, Facebook took the picture down and banned several of the page’s administrators.
Some might argue that removing these two instances could be justified according to Facebook’s “Violence and Threats” guideline. Neither of the two constitutes a threat, by any stretch of the imagination, but the two might be considered violent, if one were loose enough with the definition. The problem, of course, arises in that Facebook has no problem conveniently applying a much more specific definition of the term when it comes to allowing sadistic images of, say, rapist men beating their partners, but it takes issue with harming racists. Strange? Of course, but this is how the corporation’s Community Double Standards work.
While these first two pictures might be contested vis–à–vis Facebook’s “terms and conditions,” the third and fourth instances of Facebook censoring Anarchist Memes in these past months are so resoundingly draconian as to verge on the absurd.
In the third, Anarchist Memes posted a picture simply reading “Some women have penises. Get over it!” No violence, no graphic image (no image at all), no nudity, no pornography, simply text that happens to say the word “penis.” Facebook, however, took the photo down and banned some of the page’s administrators. Transphobic much? Facebook apologists would argue in the negative; those who have been keeping track of Facebook’s well-documented transphobic and homophobic tendencies in the past few years, on the other hand, would know that the site has an ugly history of allowing anti-LGBT*QA hate speech.
In the fourth incident, Anarchist Memes posted an Eat That Toast! cartoon depicting how strange stalkers who consider themselves “nice guys” really look to others. So-called “men’s rights ‘activists’” went berserk. While Facebook might have puerilely objected to the use of the word “penis” in the third instance—an instance of censorship that can hardly be justified in light of its allowance of sexually violent comments on countless bigoted pages—in this fourth case, the censorship absolutely, positively cannot be justified.
In response to this ridiculous censorship, only several weeks ago, Anarchist Memes declared a “Feminist Week,” devoting itself to posting more feminist material than usual. It changed the header of its site to feature eminent anarchist Emma Goldman, and changed its characteristic logo from the red and black that traditionally signify anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism to the purple and black that signify anarcha-feminism.
This brings us to yesterday. 9 January 2014 was the last straw. Facebook took Anarchist Memes down for good.
Anarchist Memes has since appealed Facebook’s decision, in last efforts to get the site back up, but the chances do not look good. In the meantime, the page’s administrators have not given up. They revived an old version of the page that had been created as a backup (because of similar problems in the past with harsh Facebook censorship) but had been inactive for months. In just one day, this new Anarchist Memes page garnered over 2000 new likes—a telltale sign that Anarchist Memes has developed a community of committed activists around the world devoted to fighting oppression in all of its forms.
An Anarchist Memes administrator provided a statement on the affair.
White supremacist groups have their Facebook pages allowed up and are able to get away with whatever racist material they want to post, but anti-capitalist, feminist, and anti-racist pages are constantly harassed by MRAs [so-called "men's rights 'activists'"], ancaps [so called "'anarcho'-capitalists"], white nationalists, and fascists and Facebook will take down those pages without batting an eye. I have reported several posts from pages that were overtly bigoted and had Facebook tell me that it doesn’t violate their standards and that I need to read their rules and stop abusing the reporting process.
The moral of the story: You can post pictures of men beating women; but you can’t mention the mere existence of a particular sexual organ on a transgender individual. You can post racist, white supremacist content until the cows come home, but, if you criticize creepy male stalkers, you will be banned. This is Facebook. It uses its ambiguous “terms and conditions” to its advantage. It can cry “Graphic content!” or “Nudity!” when it opposes particular content, and it can allow graphic content and nudity to go unaddressed when it is not opposed to it.
If this were any other website, perhaps the issue would not be as big of a deal. After all, the mainstream corporate media publishes racist, misogynist, cisheterosexist, ableist, classist, and anti-Islamic material quite regularly. Facebook, however, is an interesting beast because it is such an important website, culturally, socially, and economically.
It is common for individuals, especially those influenced by the right-”libertarian” movement in the U.S., to say “Well, if you don’t like Facebook, just stop using it.” These are the same people who say, “If you don’t like your job, boss, and/or work environment, then just quit and start your own small business”—as though anyone can simply drop everything and find the capital to start a small business—the very same ones who insist, “If you are racially and/or sexually harassed at that store, then just stop going there and shop somewhere else”—as though that is always a tenable economic opportunity. For those of us in the real world, however, we see that life is never, under any circumstance, this simple. Utilization of Facebook is not a matter merely of “use it if you want; don’t use it if you don’t.”
Facebook is a not just a private corporation; Facebook is a crucial component of contemporary popular culture. Facebook is a place and an activity that large portions of the world use today. According to a 2013 Pew study on the social networking practices of Americans, as of September 2013, 71% of online adults use Facebook (the numbers for young adults are even higher). For many people, Facebook is essentially a required social activity. For those who do not wish to become social pariahs, it has become an obligatory ritual, an inextricable part of the contemporary global socio-cultural fabric. For organizations, clubs, artists, musicians, bands, writers, photographers, fans of all sorts, and more, it is an invaluable, nonpareil way to spread the word, to connect like-minded individuals around the globe.
When such a critical part of global human culture, when the world’s de facto social media platform, is privatized, monetized, owned by a private company whose primary concern is not creating a safe, non-oppressive environment in which individuals can share their experiences, interests, and ideas with one another without fear of harassment or attack, but rather extracting profit from every possible social interaction, there is great reason to be concerned. Facebook’s attack on Anarchist Memes has demonstrated that Facebook’s bigotry extends beyond misogyny, beyond an unwillingness to take down pages that are blatantly white supremacist, racist, fascist, cisheterosexist, and more. Facebook’s censorship practices are political.
In making this point, I am not suggesting that Facebook has chosen to harshly target Anarchist Memes strictly because the page is explicitly anarchist; I would, however, posit that discounting such a point entirely would prove a fool’s errand. In mainstream Western public consciousness, the term anarchy still carries absurd connotations of chaos and violence; the term is often employed as a synonym for “disorder.” Actual anarchism, on the other hand, has a long and noble history of devotion to human justice, equality, and liberation, boasting some of human history’s most important political thinkers, figures, and organizations, including Peter Kroptokin, Noam Chomsky, Goldman, Makhno, the IWW, Revolutionary Catalonia, the Free Territory, the autonomous Shinmin region, the Zapatistas, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and much, much more.
Historically speaking, the anarchist movement adopted an intersectional approach to oppression decades before other radical left movements, indefatigably criticizing cisheteronormativity, misogyny, and racism at a time when some well-established Marxist-Leninist parties were overtly discriminating against members for being Jewish, or for refusing to conform to a heterosexual, cisgender binary, considering homosexuality (and feminism) “bourgeois decadence.” Fortunately, today, the vast majority of the radical left (including most Marxist-Leninists) has adopted the intersectional approach to oppression pioneered by many anarchist organizations, and has too incorporated anarchism’s invaluable ideals of direct-democratic organization, horizontalism, direct action, and more. Ignorant of this history, many might, without any research, side with Facebook in its reactionary criticism of Anarchist Memes, justifying knee-jerk partisanism with tired, historically baseless myths. Anarchist Memes, nevertheless, was guilty of nothing save for doing its best to fight back digitally against the racism, patriarchy, and cisheteronormativity that dominate mainstream discourse and culture.
All of this established, it is important that I herein offer one final, yet very significant comment. Although Facebook’s censorship practices are certainly political, they do not evince some kind of right-wing conspiracy to silence all leftist dissent. It is important that we do not adopt this kind of conspiratorial conception of the site. The problem is not that Facebook hires a bunch of racist, misogynist, cisheterosexist moderators to ban content they deem problematic. Nay, Facebook is a corporation. Like all economic institutions operating within a capitalist system, its only commitment is ultimately to its shareholders. It may (and does) make political decisions in that process, but its exclusive goal is to increase its profit. Any political decisions necessarily contribute to this exclu$ive goal.
Accordingly, Facebook has outsourced as much of its labor as possible. The Telegraph ran a story in March of 2012 titled “The Dark Side of Facebook,” explaining that actual human beings are the ones doing Facebook moderation, not bots, not algorithms, and that these people are located in the so-called Third World. They are underpaid, overworked, exploited workers who merely follow the rules they are told to follow. An ex-worker described his work day as one in which he sits for hours flagging pictures of “Paedophilia, necrophilia, beheadings, suicides, etc.”, admitting “I left [because] I value my sanity.” Another worker, a 21-year-old Moroccan, explained “It’s humiliating. They are just exploiting the third world.” These moderators—located in Morocco, Turkey, the Philippines, Mexico, and India—have three options when confronted with flagged content: “delete it; ignore it; or escalate it, which refers it back to a Facebook employee in California (who will, if necessary, report it to the authorities).”
The problem is not with these moderators. This isn’t some right-wing contingent, bent on silencing all of the world’s activists; they, like most of us in the global capitalist economy, are exploited workers, seeking simply to put bread on the table. We should not blame them for following the orders of their superiors, nor should we blame them for “missing” racist, misogynist, and cisheterosexist content.
Facebook might try to defer responsibility, to blame its employees—a common practice among powerful corporations enduring public scrutiny—but the problem isn’t with its employees, mere individuals working within a corporate institution. The problem is with the structure. The problem is with Facebook’s Community Double Standards. The problem is with Facebook itself.
Ben Norton is an activist, artist, and freelance writer. He can be found on Twitter at @HeartsMindsEars. Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.