How the Facebook community standards are tools to silence voices from the margin

Facebook’s community standards and reporting feature, like so many on social media sites, is to “make people feel safe when using Facebook“*… But in reality this needs to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire salt mine; the question is: “safe for who?” Of course, Facebook is not the only platform that this applies to, but it being the largest one around means that it become more visible and common there. At face value the community standards are fairly general, and seem harmless… pretty much boilerplate don’t be an asshole conditions of use. But the practical implications of how the reporting feature together with the community standards work is very problematic.

white privilegeOf course, I am not writing this just for fun; basically within a month of having a Facebook page, a comment I made to a white person being arrogant in their white privilege got reported (probably by the person it refers to, but of course that is not clear… but considering that it is the only one out of a slew of posts that got reported, it is a fairly safe bet.) And this hasn’t just happened to me, white people reporting posts of people of colour is a very common thing… A friend of mine, Wanelisa Xaba, had similar posts reported and subsequently removed by Facebook; the UCT Trans Collective’s Facebook page at some point got reported on almost a monthly basis, in their case more along the line of cisgender people reporting a trans group calling out cisgender privilege.

Stories like this are common if you look out for them, Rafaella Gunz for example has written about banned on Facebook for 24 hours for speaking out, and such stories are always from women, more often trans women, non-binary trans people, people of colour, etc. This trend is a clear indication of what is wrong with the system, and shows how the community standards – while probably meant with the best intentions – are now a tool to silence people who speak out against white privilege, trans-antagonism, queer-antagonism, sexism, patriarchy, and so forth.

For those wanting an overview of the reporting system itself, Facebook  has provided a flowchart of how it works, which is very interesting; mostly because it is clear that there is no appeals procedure for any initial reports that are made on posts, no counter to this message that “your post has violated Facebook’s community standards” until you face the endgame of being blocked from Facebook altogether… So the accumulation of reported posts remain unchallenged before it gets to that point, and provide in the end an effective harassment tool in fact.

A flowchart on how to enable white racism? (source:
A flowchart on how to enable white racism?

The reason why this turned into a trend of silencing and harassing people of colour, women (cis and trans) and non-binary trans people, etc. is because the Community Standards are general and vague… it doesn’t define what it constitutes as hate speech or harassment, leaving it to the people behind the machine to interpret. The result is that, when reporting trans-antagonism, racism, sexism, clear threats of violence from privileged people towards others, it often just doesn’t get removed by Facebook, and the people who do this don’t end up with bans. The people who do the work of moderating these posts are simply not able to distinguish things properly, with so many reported posts on a daily basis on an online platform of near a billion users; they don’t have training (or have bad training) on gender issues, race issue, privilege issue… Facebook’s use battalions of poorly paid outsourced workers to go through each and every post means that there is simply no way for them to exercise the control they claim to have over this entire process; they simply shrug at the responsibility they hold as owners of an online space.

Thus we are in a situation where online spaces such as Facebook are simply spaces catering primarily to the privileged white, cisgender, straight people out there. The societal standards that protect white privilege (amongst others) means that this filters through to how the community standards are enforced, and silences those who dare intrude upon white fragility… While one can disagree with the criticism and the vindication that happens on social media (though if you do, I’d probably ask you to check your privilege) it means that the dignity, privilege, and fragility of those who have societal privilege will be valued over the voices of those who lack such privilege. It leads to ownership of online spaces by white cis people.

When I say ownership, I mean this very literally. In all this, we need to question what online spaces are in our modern – connected – society… They are often a place of privilege, as internet access is not available for everyone, and they are commercial places. The entire setup as it currently exists is problematic for several reasons, and the main one is that the internet is so present in our lives that in order to access many services, or to participate in society, one needs access to the internet nowadays. The internet has become a public space, but it is a public space that is privatised… Imagine if 90% of our roads, parks, schools, etc. were owned by private companies, who with little to no oversight could set the rules and how they are enforced. This is what Facebook has become; it is no surprise that white supremacy, among other things, rules in this space. We need to question a lot here, and we need to understand that at this point, the way the community standards are written and applied is simply structural violence in spaces that should belong to the community.


* exact quote as of 5 January 2016 of the English version of the Facebook community standards.


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