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Facebook's report button and I are familiar friends. I don't think I abuse the reporting system. In fact, I always receive a very polite "thank you" message validating my concerns:
"Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment."
Admittedly, only about 30% of the reports I make are found to be in violation of Facebook community standards and worthy of action. Yet, it feels like an act of bravery to publicly declare: "I am a social media tattletale!"
Being a frequent post-reporter has considerable — understandable? — backlash. I have been called a coward, a censor, and a troublemaker. I have been the invisible hand that has made what was an unsafe space to some become a safe space for all and I am not sorry. Let me explain:
A few years ago I started using my Facebook timeline (or wall, back then) as a place to share and write about social justice issues I cared about.
E-activism is a thing. Remember the Arab Spring?)
I was enthralled by the rapid dissemination of information and the propulsion with which groups of people connected online and took to the streets. A study from the University of Washington calculated that tweets about political change in Egypt during the Spring of 2011 ballooned from 2,300 per day to 230,000 per day. In the Fall of 2011, I was marching in the streets of San Francisco as part of Occupy Wall Street, gleaning directions and organizational direction from Facebook, Twitter, and email. It was a wonderful Fall.
In 2012, I became pregnant, got married, and sat out of protests in favor of tandem breastfeeding. But I never lost my connection to the movements I was a part of, even if just from the sidelines at this moment in time.
On Facebook, I joined an array of social justice and new mom groups. I saw a lot of great thinking, a lot of critical examination of oppression, discrimination, prejudice and bias across social issues. I also saw a lot of hate speech. A lot of ignorance. A lot of anti-Obama rhetoric, feminine objectification, and disturbingly ableist language. Every The Mighty post shared by Upworthy makes me cringe (read: inspiration porn is a thing). I decided that I needed to clean house and not by tailoring my feed into a bubble of confirmation bias.
I needed to call people out.
I quickly realized that this was not a popular way to use Facebook.
- March 2013: "Yes, I will unfriend you for disparaging an entire category of people with ignorant language. No excuses, no tolerance." [9 likes, no comments]
- In 2014 I shared a Mic post asking "When is it ok to use the R Word?" I haughtily announced: "It is NEVER ok. I have an automatic unfriend policy on this issue." A friend from high school, a libertarian with whom I get along very well IRL, immediately fought me on this. He argued that using the R word is acceptable when it is used according to its clear definition and that by bringing political correctness into the way we use language is akin to dumbing down society. Clear definition? I immediately pushed back. Clear definitions shift over time. Millions of Americans had been harmed (institutionalized, sterilized without consent, abused, overlooked, demeaned, dehumanized, ad nauseum) by the use of this word and its shifting definition. The R word is derogatory, plain and simple. Besides, I argued over the course of more than 15 comments, as a person of able-bodied privilege, he had never been personally harmed by the word and therefore it was not his call to make. He has the power of his privilege; he does not have the power to define offense for minority groups nor the power to reclaim words and definitions.
- May 2015: I shared an Everyday Feminism post about why ableist language matters and harms. I admitted in my wall post that I had seen a significant drop in my friend count but that I stood by my decision to not let micro-aggression slide in my social network. [4 likes]
- February 2016: "I think I am probably going to experience a lot of unfriendings this election cycle. I do not apologize in advance!" [No likes]
So now I ask you, dear woke readers: I may be obnoxious, but am I wrong?
Last year, I joined a private feminism group recommended to me by a friend, excitedly laughing along with the high posting frequency of mansplaining memes and IRL text conversations mirroring OKCupid's Nice Guys. One day, a member posted the text conversation with a would-be suitor that went quickly downhill. The suitor was black. The comments section swelled as usual: encouragement to send the man a link to freesexworkers.com, discouragement from feeding the troll. And then it happened.
A (white) member commented with a reversed rephrasing of the man's messages to the OP but replaced his derogatory comments about her feminism with explicit racist stereotypes (think: comparison to a nonhuman primate). She used the N word. Immediately, the comment spurred a subthread arguing about whether it was okay to use that word in even a metaphorical sense. Members went back and forth. I didn't engage. I reported the comment.
The next morning, my newsfeed was full of strife. Facebook reviewed my report, found that the comment violated community standards, removed the entire post, and blocked the member from her account.
The mods and active members were lividly brandishing virtual pitchforks. The member had texted her IRL friends who were also in the group to let them know that she was now banned (though temporarily, as it would turn out) from Facebook. Everyone in the group agreed that the reporting was not okay, that the group was having a serious-enough dialogue about the comment itself, that the ship would have righted itself, that the commenter would have apologized if given enough time; that the reporting had violated the safety of the group's space.
Obviously, I disagreed. I reported the comment because it deserved to be removed. I turned to the external forces of Facebook's review team to exact a quick recourse. The erstwhile member was eventually returned to her account. The group continued in its clunky operation. I was disappointed that no one came to the defense of the anonymous reporter (alas, dear readers, it is here I admit that I did not step forward to claim responsibility for the report).
I am outing myself now, of course, and I posit that the removal of the comment was the opposite of a violation of safe space — it was restorative and warranted.
In my work, both my day job and the intellectual work I do in my free time, staying open-minded and engaged is paramount. Even though I know that people to not intend to do harm by accidental hate speech, the impact is the same: racism, ableism, sexism, classicism, and gender exclusivity are all experienced all day long through innumerable encounters, online and walking down the street.
Facebook provides a community standards platform to deliberate the rift between intent and impact and I know that I have so much more to learn. I constantly stumble. I hope that people will tell me when and why I've stumbled so I can learn. There is no such thing as cultural competence; I will never be fully woke.
My ignorance, my privilege, my unintended harm will speak for itself over time. So please, report me.