Facebook Vows Action After Advertisers Pull Ads Due to Site’s Failure to Bar Misogynous Content

Facebook has vowed to take action after feminist activists — upset about Facebook’s failure to ban and/or remove misogynous content from its site — sent more than 5,000 e-mails to Facebook’s advertisers and garnered more than 60,000 posts on Twitter, prompting advertisers like Nissan to say that they would withdraw advertising from the site.

Although women’s groups have complained to Facebook about misogynous content in the past, the issue heated up least week when a collective led by Women, Action and the Media; Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project; and Soraya Chemaly, a writer and activist, published an open letter asking Facebook executives to “ban gender-based hate speech on your site.” The letter cited Facebook pages with names like “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs”, “Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich,” and other pages that featured graphic descriptions and imagery of women being abused.

In what could prove an industry-wide reminder of the power of advertisers (which actually demonstrates the power of consumers), over a dozen of the companies contacted by the activists — including automotive giant Nissan — agreed to pull their ads from Facebook until appropriate action was taken to rectify the situation. David Reuter, a spokesman for Nissan, said on Tuesday that his company has stopped all Nissan advertising on Facebook until it can be sure its ads will not appear on pages with offensive content.

“We thought that advertisers would be the most effective way of getting Facebook’s attention,” said Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women, Action and the Media. “We had no idea that it would blow up this big. I think people have been frustrated with this issue for so long and feeling like that had no way for Facebook to pay attention to them. As consumers we do have a lot of power.”

In response to the upheaval, Facebook published a blog post on Tuesday, admitting its own shortcomings and laying out a plan for improvement. The post read in part:

Facebook’s mission has always been to make the world more open and connected. We seek to provide a platform where people can share and surface content, messages and ideas freely, while still respecting the rights of others…To facilitate this goal, we also work hard to make our platform a safe and respectful place for sharing and connection…We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial. We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying)…

In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate. In some cases, content is not being removed as quickly as we want.  In other cases, content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria. We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better – and we will.”

The blog post then goes on to detail the steps Facebook plans to take in order to improve, including reviewing and updating guidelines, updating training for its review teams, increasing accountability for creators of harmful content, and establishing more formal and direct lines of communication between itself and rights groups.

Stacy Janicki, a senior partner and director of accounts at the advertising agency Carmichael Lynch, said of Facebook’s response: “I think advertisers have a responsibility to consumers and media companies have a responsibility to advertisers to make sure they control the content on those sites…That’s the power and the curse of social media,” she said. “You can put anything on there, but the benefit is that you can elevate it and scale it to where advertisers will listen and ultimately Facebook will listen.”