Facebook and Censorship: The Case of When He Pays

In an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it was reported that last month, Tali Coral, the operator of the page When He Pays, was blocked again by Facebook, only two weeks after the social network had admitted that previous sanctions against her and the page, which is used to combat the Israeli prostitution industry and its customers, were imposed by mistake.

13692715_1402407063106820_7855439369426465343_n Image taken from When He Pays Facebook-page campaign

According to Coral, she was blocked from publishing on the campaign-page for three days because a customer reported her for one of her posts: she published a screenshot of an email she received from him under a pseudonym in which he described to her in details his encounters with a “service provider” while paradoxically reprimanding her for accusing him of being a client of the sex industry. Two weeks beforehand, Coral’s personal account was blocked for 24 hours, and some of the posts on the campaign-page were deleted due to “violation of Facebook’s community standards”. Since it was her third warning, the social network threatened to delete the entire page.

When He Pays is a part of a larger campaign created by Coral in 2014 while she was a part of the Israeli non-profit NGO Machon Toda’a (Awareness Centre). The NGO assists victims of the sex industry and combats prostitution primarily through raising public awareness in order to change social and constitutional perceptions about prostitution and the people (mainly women, but not only) who engage in it. The main campaign is conducted through a blog-page on Tumblr, but, according to Coral, in order to get to a mass exposure in an awareness-raising campaign, Facebook is the solution, and subsequently, also twitter. So, the three interconnected pages were created to turn the spotlight on the customers of the Israeli prostitution industry. Coral posts authentic quotes (anonymously) that are taken from different online-forums of paid-sex consumers from the largest Israeli sex portal, Sex Adir (Great Sex), in which clients of the sex industry compare their experiences and provide “recommendations” about the women they had encounters with. The Facebook-page, specifically, is used as a platform to engage the public in discussions and to publish related material and local and global news about prostitution in general.

There are two main issues that are especially interesting in this article. First, Coral practices precisely what Shirky’s (2010) argues for: she makes use of social media (specifically the Facebook-page) both as a platform for information spreading (posting the quotes and additional prostitution-related news) and as a platform for public conversation in order to support civil society in the Israeli public sphere about prostitution. Her practice is grounded in the understating that a legal change (or any kind of social change) cannot occur without a public perception change, and a perception change cannot occur from solely communicating information, but only as an addition to active conversation, especially regarding an issue such as prostitution that is grounded in false perceptions, stereotypes, and prejudice, as she states in an interview for S-Emek podcast. This also follows Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) known two-step flow of communication: people form political opinions not solely be being exposed to information (the first step), but only after the second social step in which opinions are echoed by friends, family-members, colleagues, etc. That is the step, Shirky (2010) argues, where social media can make a difference in the long-run because it is the place in which people nowadays articulate and debate different opinions (p. 4), and, thus, Coral uses one of the largest social platforms in the world today—Facebook.

However, what happens when one of the largest social platforms in the world that has become a place for a public debate (i.e. public sphere) is, first and foremost, a commercial company that has to answer to multiple stakeholders? For Facebook, it led to practice censorship, which is the second interesting issue in the article. As Meikle (2016) reveals through discourse analysis, users, readers, and shareholders are only a few of the stakeholders the network answers to, and each “answer” conflicts with the other; on the one hand, controversial content is financially beneficial because it attracts users and becomes viral, but on the other hand, it is not financially beneficial because the same content may discourage shareholders and commercial companies from investing in the network. In an attempt to bridge these, the network established “community standards” in which it simultaneously encourages its users to raise awareness about issues that are important to them but through “respectful behaviour”, that is, as long as raising awareness does not include nudity, hate speech, or violent language and graphic content. Deleting posts and blocking websites, though, seems to still be done through automatic algorithms, and not manually as the network claims, because there are still cases of blocking and deletions that seem to be arbitrary and not systematically. Thus, what happens when raising awareness requires the use of a violent language, as with Coral’s campaign? The innovative component of Coral’s campaign is the publication of the brutal language of the customers of the prostitution industry that is hidden from the public eye, which is exactly what horrifies the public and, hopefully, also what will make them look at this industry from a different perspective (i.e. change their perception). Without these quotes, the campaign could have used just another information dissemination tactic, which can be argued to not be as effective in such tabooed and controversial issues and, hence, the on-going false perceptions of the public on the prostitution industry.

Even though Coral still shows empathy to the network’s situation from the understanding that it is a private commercial business and not a philanthropic one, she admits that the situation is still problematic for this campaign (the network responded to her case only because the case was published in the press). On that note, should we hope that Facebook builds a better mechanism that would be able to differentiate between those who publish violent content for “sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence”, and those who are condemning it or raising awareness about it? Or should we hope for no censorship at all? That, however, may also be problematic, as in the case of Reddit, for example, in which Massanari (2015) revealed that the platform’s deliberate lack of censorship is precisely what brought it a different kind of critique, specifically in the cases the researcher investigated—#Gamergate and The Fappening. What, then, should we hope for in a social platform that can be a place for public conversation that could, hopefully, lead to public mobilisation and social change?


P.s – Here is a short and interesting TED talk by Pr. Shulamit Almog about raising awareness to the subject of prostitution by changing the narrative about it:[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDp4MbfzwRk[/youtube]

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  1. Julia Nosti Ekebratt

    This makes me think of the debate concerning Facebook’s ban on breasts and how nudity in general, and how that has created laughable situations in which classic art and photographs have been censored, such as the classic photo of the young girl running naked from the bombs. All while racist and violent imagery and comments have been left untouched.
    It really illustrates the need of a human eye, knowledge about origin and the cultural context in regards to big data (and algorithms as portrayed in this post) (Read, Taithe &Mac Gint, 2016, Jerven 2013) which in turn is the absolute evidence that this type of information gathering can never be the full answer.
    Reading the post also makes me feel uncomfortable in regards to the amount of power these big companies have on the freedom of speech and the access to people. It really makes you think of what this power could lead to and the consequences it might have if it were to be misused.
    /Julia Nosti

    • Alona Polanitzer

      Hi Julia!
      First, thanks for your comment 🙂
      Second, I absolutely agree with you, and it reminded me too about the ban of bare-chested photos as part of feminist campaigns. And this is only one “incident”: even though the network has started to allow photos of mothers breast-feeding their children about a year ago, there seems to be new issues that are continuously popping up in regards to nudity and violence-related content.
      With that being said, it seem that Facebook has finally decided to officially change its “community standards” by “allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public”, even it contains nudity or violent content, which can be seen on a post in their newsroom five days ago . However, even though the social network claims to have made this decision due to “continued feedback from our community and partners” about their community standards and the kinds of content that are being permitted on the site, their decision seems to have been made after numerous similar incidents of “problematic” content. One of the more recent and significant ones that was mentioned in an article only three days ago was the case of one of the most iconic photographs of the Vietnam War that also won the Pulitzer Prize in which a little girl is running naked from an explosion after taking her burning clothes off. Apparently, a Norwegian author had written a post about the photo as a part of a larger subject of photographs that have changed the face of wars, and the social network deleted his post. Even after much attention in the Norwegian press, the network continued with its policy and censored the photo that had been later shared by the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in her page.
      It seems that the social network is still having and will continue to have problems with censorship and with deciding what is “newsworthy” or “iconic”, and what is suitable for every member in its global “community”, even though this move can be viewed as a positive change towards freedom of speech. As well, as you mentioned and I absolutely agree with your worry, there is still the problem of such an immense power that a corporate commercial company has on the lives of so many people—the decisions they make have so many consequences for so many people…

  2. A lot of people forget that Facebook isn’t a civic public square, it’s a feudal shopping mall. We have no real rights to free speech. I’ve had friends that were banished. It took weeks to find out why and longer to appeal.

    • Alona Polanitzer

      Yes, Ian, I agree. Though, I think that most people are either not aware of Facebook status as a commercial company first and foremost, or they just don’t think about it too much. Perhsps when it comes to the spotlight, they start thinking about it a bit more, as can be seen lately with more articles about the problematic nature of Facebook’s censorship, which is basically like a “black box”–there seem to be no reall grounded rules yet as to the way they decide to block pages and posts, and which is exactly where the problem begins.
      As for banishing people put, in my understanding, a person’s post/page can be taken away from only one user’s report. That is, FB can take a person’s post/page or even totally block them from one user’s report. And from recent articles, their claims to do these things manually and not automatically seems further away from the truth, unfortunately…

  3. Ausra Raulusonyte

    I read this blog post a few days ago. It really made me rethink what I thought about Facebook and social media in general. I decided to come back and comment here.
    Firstly, I really liked how you presented Shirky’s (2010) idea that social media may be a space where people debate and build up on ideas and issues that are important in their social reality. You also add the explanation of two-step path (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955) to actually facing politically or socially important information. This emphasis on the second step – sharing similar views with the acquaintances – reminds me of Dan Mercea’s (below) discussion of networked communication corresponding with physical happenings of protest. Mercea discusses Hannah Arendt’s, XX century’s political theorist, notion of preparation, something that ignites people for action. From these discussions, Mercea extracts the idea of mutual recognition that is created in the realm of Arendt’s action and speech, and this mutual recognition corresponds well with Katz and Lazarsfeld’s ideas.

    I am mentioning this just to strengthen the idea that social media space has a potential to be this space of mutual recognition. However, like you emphasize in your posts, the issue is much more difficult. Facebook is not just the space for democratic interaction. It is a space which is an object of market forces, too. I like how Ian Muller called it ”a feudal shopping mall in the comments”. This aspect of Facebook hinders the potential of democratic communication space, although, mutual recognition may be created.

    Recently, I have read about another kind of unfulfillment of facebook’s promises. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Cristian Vaccari (below) explains that, although it is commonly thought that social media is creating new ways for politicians to communicate DIRECTLY with the ordinary citizens, Politics haven’t embraced this, and only a minority of politicians actually attract big numbers of followers an communicate directly with them.

    I think your blog and this article, in this overwhelming flow of beliefs about endless potentials of social media sites in emancipation of citizens and political communication, point out that we should rethink our expectations for social networks such as Facebook.

    Mercea, D. (2016). Civic Participation in Contentious Politics; The Digital Foreshadowing of Protest. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
    Nielsen, R.K.& Cristian, V. (2013).Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not really : Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon.
    International Journal of Communication, Vol. 7, 2013, p. 2333–2356.

    • Alona Polanitzer

      I Ausra!
      Thank you much for your thorough comment and for providing more interesting literature to the subject!
      Indeed, as I have been following this campaign for quite some time now, I found it to be extremely interesting because of its paradoxical nature; on the one hand, it seems that its creator was following a “positive” attitude by embracing social media as a place for conversation in order to achieve a social change, a change that will take its time because of the much prejudice and stereotypes this issue holds among people. On the other hand, the exact platform has proven to be problematic for its commercial nature. That said, the campaign received even more attention in the press because of the platform’s problematic nature of censorship, which worked exactly against it: Facebook has been even more criticised for every censorship case they have enacted, including this campaign.
      As so many aspects in our life nowadays become commercial, I suppose we are just wishing for a non-commercial platform, for a “real” Habermasian public sphere. Moreover, as Micke also mentioned during one of the blogs’ presentations, we seem to be able to “bypass” obstacles quite easily (like creating new platforms and social spaces), something that is especially true in regards to new media technologies that are constantly changing and in such a fast pace. However, again, in order to reach a wider range of people in awareness-raising campaigns that require a public debate, it seems to be a problematic solution as well: first, creating new platforms requires at least some technical knowledge that most of us do not have and, second, these new platforms do not populate as many people as the popular platforms, which is their main advantage. Then, I would argue, that at least one solution can be found with people who have this technical knowledge, like different hackers whom I talked about here, who help more and more “ordinary people” by sharing their technical knowledge so more people and groups would be able to achieve social change. Even though it is not the ultimate solution, I would say it is at least a step in the right direction, one that always proves itself useful but has also always been a problem in the development/social change arena—development cooperation.

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