In the coming weeks we will be featuring posts from our smart and savvy summer interns. This post is by programs intern Eli Siems. Eli is a recent graduate of SUNY New Paltz with a degree in English. He is passionate about literature in all forms, particularly poetry, and his love of letters has led him to join the fight to protect free speech, both at home and overseas. 

A recent protest campaign with the twitter hashtag #FBRape succeeded in getting a series of violently sexist pages removed from Facebook under the site’s hate speech policy, even after Facebook moderators repeatedly denied abuse reports regarding those same pages. How did #FBRape get it done? Through the power of advertisers, of course: #FBRape’s mission was an overnight success once Nissan was on board.

The campaign has encountered little, if any, opposition. What moron would defend a page with the title “raping a pregnant bitch and telling your friends you had a threesome” or sites with images of women who have been violently attacked? But does the fact that something may be offensive beyond reasonable defense mean it should be banned as hate speech. Therein lies the rub.

Hate speech is a very difficult thing to define. And, much as Facebook insists it does not ban speech that is just offensive, the line between the two is hard to draw. The site’s terms of service agreement explicitly states:

“We do, however, allow clear attempts at humor or satire that might  otherwise be considered a possible threat or attack. This includes content that many people may find to be in bad taste (ex: jokes, stand-up comedy, popular song lyrics, etc.).”

But how do Facebook moderators – a handful compared to the 1.11 billion active users – distinguish between an off-color misogynist joke and hate speech? Well, as you may suspect, the line is subjective and often misapplied.

Consider the Facebook page mentioned above:”raping a pregnant bitch and telling your friends you had a threesome,” an example used by #FBRape cofounder Laura Bates in a recent blog post. While the page was apparently inviting members to “like” a clearly criminal act of sexist violence, its title is actually a quote from the song “Tron Cat” by rapper Tyler the Creator (find the lyrics here, and click the line in question to reveal textual analysis by rap-savvy members). A commentator on analyzes the lyric:

“This line can be seen as self-deprecating as well as a morally reprehensible boast: Tyler’s implying that fucking a pregnant girl is the only way he could have a “threesome,” and even if he resorted to that he wouldn’t be able to score consensually, so the act would have to be rape.”

That doesn’t sound like incitement to violence against women to me. You might think it’s a bad joke, but Facebook protects those. This is the kind of thing the free speech community should be on the lookout for. We can’t let people’s hatred of hate speech (however justified) lead to mass banning of anything potentially controversial. If, after a complete investigation, a page is found to contain hate speech, as defined clearly and narrowly, then by all means, take it down. But is this even possible?

There may be a better way for hate speech to be handled by the Facebook community: That community is non-anonymous, which means that if you’re spouting hate speech, people can find you. They can even hate right back. Ugly jokes are more damaging to their creator than to the group they attack. It may be better to attack bad speech with more speech rather than by silencing it.

Remember your commitment to free speech, Facebook! It’s not too late.