BTL Staff
By | 2018-01-16T09:34:30-04:00 November 19th, 2009|News|

by Jessica Carreras

Facebook boasts that its purpose is to help you “connect and share with the people in your life.” But what if it also helps to foster hate speech?
Recently, several metro Detroiters were disturbed to see a locally started group in their news feed advocating for a “gay button.” The group argued that Facebook should install a “gay” button – much in the style of the ever-popular “like” button – allowing users to say when they thought someone’s status or activity was “gay.” The use of the word gay, the group clarified, meant stupid.

It’s not the only group of its kind on the popular social networking site, nor is it the only way the word gay is misused. Others include fan pages for “Not being gay” and “Not being lesbian.” One group, “Homework is gay,” has over 44,000 members. And a search of the term “faggot” yields over 3,200 results for groups – many of which target individuals with the word in a derogatory way.
Representatives from Facebook say that they are constantly working to combat hate speech in all its forms, while the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has launched a program specifically aimed at battling hateful comments, groups and people on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other sites. But both organizations admit that much of the responsibility lies in the hands of users, reporting and policing their peers.

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For Ferndale residents Aimee Coldren and Jeremy Bruce, a case of Facebook hate speech warranted immediate action.
The 26-year-old roommates, along with friend Leah Rayfield, 25, of Troy, were outraged when they discovered in early November that a high school classmate of Rayfield’s had created the “gay button” page on Facebook.
“I originally came across the group while scanning my news feed,” Rayfield explained. “I quickly clicked on the gay button link to see what the group was all about, and discovered that a few of the people I went to high school with had also joined the group.”
All three reported the page to Facebook, and encouraged friends to do the same. It was removed within several days.
While Bruce recognized that content of this kind walked the borderline of hate speech and free speech, he saw it as a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.
Under the Safety section, the Web site states to users: “You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
To the three friends, the “gay button” page was exactly that: hateful. “I found the ‘gay button’ group hateful and, therefore, against Facebook’s policy,” Bruce said. “Facebook encourages users to report content like this, so I did and think other people should do the same.”
Bruce argued that this is identical to someone saying “that’s gay” when referring to something they don’t like in everyday speech.
“Every time this debate comes up, I hear ‘I don’t mean it like that,'” he continued. “How else could you mean it? … You are using a word that represents a group of people to identify something else as something to be hated or disliked. That usage sets up a negative connotation with the people represented by that word.”
Though Rayfield saw that the page was taken down, she noted that several others still came up in a search – including another page advocating for a “gay button.”
A request for comment from the creator of the Michigan-based “gay button” page yielded no response.

Free speech or hate speech?

As both Bruce and representatives of Facebook have pointed out, there is gray area between hate speech and free speech. Facebook aims to allow the latter, while forbidding the former. But where use of terms like “faggot,” “retard” and phrases like “that’s so gay” fall on the spectrum is always up for debate.
In the case of social networking, Facebook claims to have very clear lines as to what is free speech and what is hate speech. “Facebook takes the issue of hate speech very seriously,” said spokesperson Nicky Jackson Colaco. “We prohibit the use of slurs to insult others. We consider the word ‘faggot’ to be a slur, and regularly remove content from the site that includes this term.
“There are instances when it is used in either a descriptive context … or as a self-referential term, and we may not remove those usages from the site.”
Jackson Colaco added that use of the word “gay” was considered hate speech when used “to attack individuals.”
But for those like Coldren, Bruce and Rayfield, who were encouraging friends to report the same page they had flagged as offensive, Facebook made clear that their decisions to take down pages, profiles or groups is always based on whether it violates policy – not on how many people it offends.
In a recent case documented in USA Today, the mother of a disabled child complained to Facebook about rampant use of the word “retard” on the site. And though she’s certainly not the only parent who would be offended by such language, a spokesman for the site told USA Today, “The mere use of the word ‘retard’ is not a violation of terms of use.”
However, Jackson Colaco added that all it takes is one report to get a group or page taken down – though it may take several days for Facebook to assess the situation and make a decision.
“We don’t remove content simply because people may not agree with it, because we want Facebook to be a place where people can openly discuss issues and express their views,” Jackson Colaco said. “However, we want them to do so while respecting the rights and feelings of others.”

GLAAD talks how to fight hate

Whether on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or other sites, monitoring of hate speech is almost always left up to users of the services.
And that’s why GLAAD created a program in 2008 to combat online hate against LGBT people. Digital Media staff work directly with Web-based companies on specific and broad issues of discrimination and hate speech, and have already made several accomplishments.
Earlier this year, they met with people from Xbox Live to discuss their policy of eliminating accounts with names that included their sexual orientation. They have also made calls of action to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after becoming aware of anti-LGBT users or content.
“As more and more people turn to virtual communities to connect with each other and for entertainment, we need to ensure these spaces are LGBT-inclusive and safe for our community – right now that’s not always the case,” said Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs at GLAAD. “Our new project and work with leading tech companies aims to both educate users on the impact of homophobic remarks and put sustainable policies in place that make the experience fun and inclusive for everyone.”
But the biggest responsibility remains on the shoulders of users. “The companies have been prompt at addressing the hate speech, and we have mobilized our constituents on the GLAAD Twitter account to reach out when new incidents occur,” explained Director of Public Relations Richard Ferraro.
As a result, several YouTube accounts (“fagsrfilthy” and “ExecuteTheGays1”) were removed. On Facebook, GLAAD successfully lobbied to have the group “I Hate Fags” removed after their members notified them of it.
And Facebook encourages every user to take action and report groups, profiles or pages whenever they find them to be offensive. “Facebook is highly self-regulating, and leverages its 300 million users to keep an eye out for offensive or hateful content,” Jackson Colaco said. “We encourage users to report this content, and we have a large team of professional reviewers who evaluate these reports and take action per our policies.”

Where should we draw the line between free speech and hate speech on the Internet? Have you ever experienced hate on a social networking site? BTL wants to know! Log in and comment at www.pridesource.com or e-mail us at editor@pridesource.com.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 25th anniversary.