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Facebook always seems to be under fire for one thing or another. This month it’s hate speech.

Women’s groups have been up in arms about the way Facebook handles abusive speech toward women. Images and pages about breastfeeding get yanked while pages about beating your girlfriend amass a disturbing number of fans. Finally, a critical mass was reached last week, and women’s groups have joined together to push for action.

Tanzina Vega of The New York Times brings us some details:

Women’s groups have complained to Facebook about misogynous content in the past, but pressure on the company escalated last 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 highlighted Facebook pages with names like ‘Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs’ and ‘Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich,’ and other pages that included graphic images of women being abused.

The groups asked Facebook to improve how it trains moderators to recognize and remove such content. They also asked Facebook users to use the Twitter hashtag #FBrape to call on companies to stop advertising on Facebook if their ads have been placed alongside such content. A petition on the site change.org had almost 224,000 supporters by Tuesday evening.

Hate speech should not be tolerated, period, but the question of how to deal with it is a more slippery subject. Facebook has often been in the news for making what most consider to be positive strides in that direction, as well as for its fumbles.

In this instance, Zuckerberg and company have responded in a blog post detailing changes meant to mollify the offended parties. The Naked Security blog by Sophos provides a roundup:

Complete a review and update guidelines that its user operations team uses to evaluate reports of hate speech.

Update training for the teams that review and evaluate reports of hateful speech or harmful content on Facebook.

Increase accountability of the creators of content that might not qualify as actionable hate speech but is cruel or insensitive by insisting that the authors stand behind the content they create. […]

Work more directly with groups in this area, including women’s groups, to assure expedited treatment of content that such groups believe violate Facebook standards. […]

Encourage anti-hate-speech groups Facebook already works with, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Cyberhate working group, to include representatives of the women’s coalition…

While it’s good to see action on a subject like this, it’s counterbalanced by my concern at the idea of Facebook being the arbiter of what is and is not hate speech. For one thing, since Facebook is a private company, it can enact policies that limit speech and expression. We have already seen the weird disparities in its treatment of the breastfeeding-oriented content.

On the other hand, millions of dollars are sunk into Facebook ads every year. Advertisers should be able to have secure assurance that their copy will not be displayed next to content about “beating your girlfriend.” As many brands have learned, the backlash can be swift and devastating.

Matthew Ingram of GigaOm wrote an excellent column for BusinessWeek about just that, and notes one of the most vital things to consider when adjudicating free speech issues:

As more than one free-speech advocate has noted, if popular protests about offensive content were what determined the content we were able to see or share a few decades ago, anything promoting homosexuality or half a dozen other topics would have vanished from our sight. There is at least a case to be made that the simplest course of action for a network like Facebook would be to remove content only when it is required to do so by law. But then what happens to the kind of content it just apologized for?

On a personal level, it’s good to know where people are attempting to limit free speech. From a business standpoint, it pays to know what might turn up linked to your online presence. No matter what, it seems that we can always look to Facebook to be in the thick of things when it comes to controversy over online content.

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