Gender prejudice in Social Media

Gender prejudice in Social Media

Gender prejudice in social media could be seriously reduced if Facebook and Twitter updated their terms of service. So maybe they should?

Writer’s Note – I was inspired to write this by the work of The Everyday Gender prejudice Project (@everydaysexism). I took my lead from their tireless work and growing #FBrape Twitter campaign and borrowed a lot of images from their Twitter page. Check them out for the full story.

Also check out pages like Wipeout Gender prejudice on FB which exist to balance and disrupt the hate churned out on Facebook such as the examples included in this article.

The Internet has a lot of good points and has enhanced the lives and productivity of countless users around the world. Unfortunately, with that many people on the Web, it was almost inevitable that attitudes considered to be unacceptable in modern society would rear their ugly heads, with people taking advantage of the relative anonymity the Internet offers. Two of the greatest offenders in the social media world are Facebook and Twitter, whose unevenly enforced policies concerning unacceptable content end up inadvertently giving platforms for gender prejudiced and racist remarks and slurs. Additionally, as these user-targeted adverts begin to appear alongside offensive pages, the companies using them are left dealing with controversy and offended consumers.

How does this happen? Don’t Twitter and Facebook know these attitudes are unacceptable?

Twitter has a long-running stance of not censoring conversation on its site, even when such conversation rises to the level of hate. Twitter points to its role as the social media tool of choice for revolutionaries during the “Arab Spring” two years ago as one of its most shining moments, and points out that if they had censored content, the revolution might never have got off the ground. So far, so progressive…

However, Twitter’s simplified terms of service specifically state that no user may actively threaten violence against others “in a direct, specific way” and that pornographic images may not be used as part of a person’s profile, header, or other “static” images. Posting them elsewhere, however, is not mentioned. Therefore, toe-curling accounts like this can continue unimpeded.

Part of the difficulty with Twitter is that any user could inadvertently wind up being associated with hate speech, even if they themselves do not believe in the sentiments expressed by another user. Larger users with bigger followings who retweet a forced violation joke, a racial slur, or a homophobic remark – even in ignorance – in essence give the users promulgating such speech a platform. Far worse are the cases in which well-followed accounts make such jokes.

There’s always a certain duty of care involved in holding a position of prominence. For some reason, Twitter accounts such as the above are afforded an immense prominence. Perhaps because they are parodies, people afford them a free pass, but by retweeting you’re validating them and encouraging them to keep going. You’re also helping to enforce the notion that this is how to be funny…

The rules of Facebook, on the other hand, are far more inscrutable and less evenly enforced. Their advertising policy states, in part:

Inflammatory and Derogatory Personal, Political and Religious Content:

Ad or Sponsored Stories content may not express hatred or intent of violence against any individual or group, particularly surrounding the race, gender, creed, national origin, religious affiliation, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or language of that individual or group. We advocate freedom of political speech, however we do not tolerate the use of derogatory language for political purposes, as this leads to high negative feedback from users.

Their private user terms of service are far less clearly written and comprehensible, with human bodily fluids (except semen) now apparently acceptable as long as a human being is not portrayed in the pictures. In April of 2012, Facebook deleted an image of two men exchanging a kiss, provoking a firestorm of negative opinion from outraged QUILTBAG activists. Strangely, images of this nature along with images of breastfeeding and even feminist art have been afforded the same treatment as hate speech and removed from profiles. However, crushed heads are acceptable “as long as no insides are showing.” Because of the opacity of Facebook’s private user TOS, innocent remarks can result in a user’s account being suspended whilst at the same time side-splitters like this one (TW: Not graphic, just incredibly nasty) are afforded a frankly sickening amount of exposure.

Indeed, according to Facebook:

But what about free speech?

Facebook and Twitter are both based in the United States. As such, they are subject to American law, most notably the Constitution, and they will sing The 1st Amendment (freedom of speech) to protect themselves whenever they enter a murky situation. Freedom of the press, religion, and the right to peaceful assembly are guaranteed rights for every American citizen. The UK and most of the EU, as well as Australia, have similar laws incorporated into their own codes of government. This gets thorny when dealing with other countries, such as China and North Korea, two of the most heavily censored nations on the planet. However, with that freedom of speech also comes the obligation to use it responsibly. This includes the willingness to accept responsibility and the consequences for anything a user puts online.

In the images captured above, large companies like EasyJet, Nissan, Dove, and the University of Phoenix had sponsored ads appearing on these Facebook pages. I think it needs to be made clear that the original fault was not with these companies. All they did was pay for advertising to be targeted at users with specific profiles or interests. However, no system is perfect, and this situation is a perfect example of when the best-laid plans turn sour.

Facebook’s sharability is part of its USP (unique selling point); simply by engaging with a piece of content you expose your social circle to that content. That’s how unsuspecting users end up faced with posts like this, and the adverts remain on-screen, ignorant to the content of the page.

The companies have been scorned by activism groups, angry Tweets and Facebook posts demanding to know if they were proud to be associated with gender prejudiced sentiments.

Since this is simply an accident emerging from an automated system, the companies can shift the blame away and avoid the need to apologise. While there were undoubtedly heated discussions behind the scenes between these advertisers and Facebook – whose very survival depends on advertising revenue – the users blaming the companies need to be made clear that this was not an active choice, but a digital marketing faux pas.

That said, continuing to use an inherently flawed system only perpetuates its use. The best step these companies could take would be – as a collective – to pull their funding of Facebook adverts until Facebook makes a radical change to its tolerance of unacceptable content.

These businesses wouldn’t pump money into businesses that permit promotion of domestic violence and rape culture; but in essence that’s exactly what they’re doing.


If we’re looking for someone to blame, obviously we should start with the individual user. Personal accountability is a key part of making the Internet and social media safe for everyone. However, we can’t overlook the role Facebook and Twitter play in facilitating such communication. The Terms of Service for both companies can be mismanaged, misinterpreted, and dodged, and even if every employee of both companies spent their entire day doing nothing but tracking down such violations (which they actually do spend a vast amount of their time doing), they would still likely only catch a small fraction unless a critical mass of users begin to change their standards and report issues as they arise. Even the most aggressive policies are subject to the ability to enforce them – a problem that has plagued social media since the beginning.

While Twitter, Facebook, et al cannot control what their users choose to post, they can certainly take proactive steps to make an example of people who do post such materials. By adopting a zero-tolerance policy regarding any example of hate speech, they can prevent homophobic, racist, and gender prejudiced sentiments, epithets, and images from showing up on their platforms.

This could be accomplished relatively easily. Every social media account is linked to an email address. That email address is linked to a user’s IP address. Therefore, by banning the IP and email address of offending accounts permanently for such infractions, users will quickly come to realize that such speech is not acceptable. This in turn will prevent innocent bystanders such as the viewing public and companies who paid valuable money for advertising space on these platforms from being exposed to or associated with these kinds of activities.

I believe we should be accountable for what we say. Hiding behind an immature and ill-informed Facebook profile removes the locus of responsibility from the user and places it on Facebook. Perhaps a further measure might be taken in requiring pages to be linked to profiles. Any rational thinking person would then question the standards of what they’re pumping into the social sphere.

A safe Internet and the preservation of freedom of speech begins with the individual users. Social media is intended to be just that: social. This creates a clear responsibility for users to adhere to the same basic rules of conduct they would in the offline world. However, the buck stops with the services themselves. If their terms of service are made more transparent and the consequences for violating them clearer, there is no reason the general public and advertisers should have to view or be associated with this type of material. Ultimately, such policies can only lead to a more user-friendly, intelligent social media experience for all.

I choose to be accountable for what I say. If you have any thoughts, tweet me @eelselbows. I work at, a company which practices ethical digital marketing. If you work for Dove, Nissan or EasyJet – or if you’re interested in working out a social media campaign that will be most beneficial to your brand, then give me a call.