Catcalling is totally cool with Facebook: 5 highlights from the leaked moderation manual

That the social media giant is totally fine with everyday misogyny says something about corporate social values

By Keith A. Spencer

Published May 22, 2017 6:47PM (EDT)

 (AP/James H. Collins)
(AP/James H. Collins)

This month, an anonymous source leaked to the Guardian an internal Facebook manual that gives insight into how the social media site decides which posts deserve censorship and which don’t. The Guardian is opting to release select portions of the guideline slides rather than the whole document at once (though a 2013 leaked version can be read here), and the piecemeal documents so far provide an intriguing look at how Facebook manages its product — by which I mean its users, whom Facebook profits off of via selling targeted advertising.

In order to keep its userbase intact and keep advertisers happy, it behooves Facebook not to rock the boat too much, culturally or politically: The internal guidelines illustrate that Facebook has no problem with the sort of everyday misogynist language that one might hear, say, on the Howard Stern show, though it tries to sanitize sexual content that crosses a PG-13 threshold.

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Some highlights from the Guardian’s revelations so far are as follows.

1. Facebook has very specific standards for what constitutes “revenge porn”

Under its definition, “revenge porn is sharing nude/near-nude photos of someone publicly or to people that they didn’t want to see them in order to shame or embarrass them.” Facebook writes that, in order to constitute revenge porn, the following conditions must be fulfilled: The image is “produced in a private setting,” the “person in image is nude, near nude, or sexually active AND lack of consent confirmed,” either by a “vengeful context” or “independent sources.”

2. Its guidelines around “sexual activity” are where things start to get weird

“Moderate displays of sexuality,” including “clothed stimulated sex” and “open-mouth kissing” are acceptable. They provide an example of clothed people grinding at what looks like a club. “Black-barred” or “pixelated sexual activity” is acceptable for adults on Facebook; Facebook uses an example of a porn scene where actors’ nude bodies are painted over with cartoon characters as an example of this.

Here’s where it gets weird. Facebook has a policy against depictions of “groping.” However, they define groping as “visible indentation in skin/flesh of naked female breast by other persons.” So a picture of a woman holding her own breasts? Totally cool. A picture of a man holding a woman’s breasts but over her shirt? Also cool. But god forbid there’s an indentation visible on the naked flesh.

Implied sexual activity is okay as long as there’s something covering up the naughty bits. You can’t post a picture of someone stimulating oral sex, unless there’s a pair of underwear in the way, in which case it’s okay. Or if someone’s face is obscuring the genitals.

Facebook has separate standards for female nipples and male nipples. Under the prohibited category, they outlaw “oral stimulation on naked, female nipples.” But if the woman in question is wearing a bra, or someone is sucking on a man’s nipple’s, it’s okay with them.

This seems both outdated and oddly gendered for a company that prides itself on offering its users gender options outside of the gender binary.

3. However, Facebook has become noticeably cooler with art that depicts nudity

Facebook was roundly mocked after it censored a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a nude 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running from napalm bombs during the Vietnamese war. Since then, it seems to have taken to heart that there is a significant grey area between what constitutes art and what constitutes nudity.

“We allow nudity when it is depicted in art like paintings, sculptures, and drawings,” the leaked overview slide reads. “We do not allow digitally created nudity or sexual activity.”

“The current line is also difficult to enforce because it is hard to differentiate between handmade art and digitally made depictions,” the anonymous author concludes.

Facebook made an exception for digital nudity where genitals and “female nipple[s]” were “not sufficiently detailed.” The guiding document depicted as exemplars a crude drawing of a stick figure with an erection as a line, and a stick figure with circles for breasts.

4. Rape culture is cool with them, though

“Sexually explicit language” is fine as long as “no details” are given. Among a long list of “detail-free” phrases that Facebook deems are okay include “Yeah I’d like to poke that bitch in the pussy,” “I’ve got a hard-on for you girl,” “How about I fuck you in the ass, girl?” and “Hello ladies, wanna suck my cock?”  In other words: Catcalling is totally cool with Facebook.

As any women will tell you, one can feel threatened by this sort of language even if it’s not “detailed.” This is what rape culture is: a culture characterized by the normalization of the objectification of women. And it’s all cool with Mark Zuckerberg, the man who famously called his users “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their personal information.

5. Facebook's censorship vs. the FCC's

Most striking about Facebook is the way that they have become arbiter for what media is acceptable and unacceptable in a way that cuts across cultures and nationalities. Because of the internet’s transnational nature and its relative newness as a communications medium, there is no equivalent to the Federal Communications Commission, the American governmental organization that serves as censor and arbiter of taste for American television and radio.

Many of us rarely hear of the FCC except when it is being mocked, say, in comedian George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” sketch in which he riffs on the seven words the FCC never lets air. Say what you will about the FCC and its sometimes dumb, patriarchal censorship decisions, but the truth is that the FCC is far more benign than Facebook for two reasons: first, because as a governmental organ, it reacts and responds to the democracy under which it is organized, and its methods and rules are transparent; and two, because the FCC is not a for-profit group and thus has no interest in monitoring and profiting off the information that flows through our TVs.

You can’t say the same about Facebook. It is the publisher and the moderator; jury and executioner. It can react to consumer pressure, but it has no mandate to make its strange moderation rules public. It doesn’t want to dole out justice so much as it wants to keep things tidy enough to keep the money flowing from advertisers — who, in the end, are its real customers, while the users are just the product. Perhaps that is why it has the strange double-standard in how it polices gender: it is happy to provide non-binary gender options for its members, most of whom will never see nor notice when they are filling in the gender box; yet, for the larger Facebook audience, it has no interest in rocking the boat when it comes to questioning ingrained patriarchal ideas or policing everyday misogyny. Of course, Facebook could easily begin moderating these kinds of behaviors that alienate women every day. Perhaps it fears that its male userbase would flee over such a decision.

The hubbub around Facebook’s twisted and ambiguous moderation practices feeds into larger recent public discussions over whether social media is more akin to a public service and should perhaps be broken up, nationalized, or converted to user-owned systems. “Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor in chief in the world,” Espen Egil Hansen, the editor in chief of Norweigan newspaper Aftenposten, was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Indeed, as the last election showed, Facebook has the has the power to mediate what we see and read, as well as to set cultural standards for what behaviors are acceptable and which ones aren’t.

Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor for Salon. He manages Salon's science, tech, economy and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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