Skip to main content

Facebook's turning point on sexual violence

By Michelle Kinsey Bruns, Special to CNN
May 30, 2013 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook agrees to crack down on gender-based hate speech
  • Michelle Kinsey Bruns: Site allowed content glorifying rape, other violence against women
  • It's no First Amendment issue, she says; it's about terms of use, shareholders
  • Kinsey Bruns: Move is very significant to women; Tumblr, Twitter, Google+ must follow

Editor's note: Michelle Kinsey Bruns is online manager for the Women's Media Center.

(CNN) -- After a weeklong campaign by a coalition of more than 100 women's groups, Facebook announced Tuesday that it would update its guidelines and moderator training to crack down on gender-based hate speech. This commitment, though only a prelude to effective and consistent implementation, marks a watershed moment in the cultural evolution of the billion-user-strong social media platform -- and perhaps even of the entire internet.

The activist campaign spotlighted a proliferation of content glorifying rape and other violence against women on Facebook. Groups and images with allegedly humorous titles like "Raping a Pregnant B***h and Telling Your Friends You Had a Threesome" have always been only a click away and, under Facebook's content policy until now, stood a better chance of surviving moderator review than photos of breastfeeding babies did.

Michelle Kinsey Bruns
Michelle Kinsey Bruns

Some have criticized the activist campaign as an attack on free speech, but free speech here is a red herring at best. Facebook is a private enterprise, and the First Amendment quite simply is not the issue.

Like any private online service, Facebook also has a right to set terms of use and a responsibility to shareholders to meet users' needs. Some 60,000 tweets to the campaign's #fbrape hashtag made clear that violently misogynistic content was doing damage to Facebook's relationship with its user base.

Facebook makes thousands of decisions a day about what sort of content is acceptable on its site. Soraya Chemaly, one of the founders of this month's campaign along with activist groups Women Action and the Media and Everyday Sexism, told me that Facebook's moderation of ads or content like breastfeeding photos "put them in a position of interpreting this content and deciding what would stay up and what would not. ... It became evident that there was a double standard when it came to gender."

Facebook's IPO: One year later
Army vets take on hackers

Viewed in that light, Facebook's response to the activist campaign signals not a radical change of agenda but rather a refinement to its existing content policies. Yet its significance for women can't be overstated. The acceptability of speech glorifying sexual or other violence against women is a sure measure of the degree to which women's full participation -- on a website, in any public space or in a society -- is welcome.

Facebook is to be commended for committing to take additional steps to ensure that women are as welcome on its service as men. Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and the rest would do well to follow in Facebook's footsteps.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michelle Kinsey Bruns.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT