This past weekend, thousands of Facebook users deactivated their accounts in protest of what they feel are the social networking site’s failures to properly address issues of race and racism on the platform. The blackout was organized by Kinfolk Kollective’s La Sha who spoke with us about how Facebook’s issues with racism have boiled over and plans to address them.
Hari: I wanted to start with how you came to feel a message needed to be sent to Facebook at this moment. What prompted the idea of a blackout and why now?
La Sha: Well, back in July, a comment I made to a white man who’d posted a noose under a black girl’s comment on a thread was removed. I’d basically cursed him out and Facebook found my language violated community standards. Yet, I reported the pic of the noose, under which he’d said that back in the early 1900s, they knew how to handle uppity niggers. I received a message from Facebook saying his comment “did not violate community standards.” Then I started noticing more and more of my friends were being banned from posting for comments they’d made in response to racist comments, and I was just tired of it.
Then when Mark Zuckerberg reached out to Ahmed Mohammed about visiting Facebook, I wondered why he’d reach out this child over anti-Islam and anti-Arab sentiments when I’ve seen vicious anti-Islam and anti-Arab comments on his site. So, I guess you’d say that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
H: Do you think he didn’t mean what was said in his statement regarding Ahmed, that it was a show of hypocrisy, or that the site is just systemically ill-equipped to handle these issues?
L: I thought he took advantage of a PR opportunity. I don’t know if his invitation was totally disingenuous, but it certainly seems hypocritcal given that that the site that made him a billionaire doesn’t address the concerns of people like Ahmed, who are routinely subject to cyber racism and Islamaphobia. And I’m positive it isn’t that the site is ill-equipped to address these concerns, because I have multiple screenshots of people being banned for using the word “cracker” juxtaposed with screenshots showing Facebook determined that calling a black person a nigger or porch monkey doesn’t violate its standards. So, this is a clear case of bias in the application of the community standards.
H: You wrote previously about other cases that show what seems like an inconsistent application of the site’s standards and included stories from other users as well. With thousands of people saying they participated in the blackout, it’s clear that there are many who share your concerns and the idea to fight back has struck a cord. Can you tell me more about the complaints you’ve heard from other people and how that contributed to your decision to organize a protest on a larger scale?
L: I was actually floored by how many people had similar experiences. It’s important to note that the complaints were from black, Latino, Native, Arab and Asian people. I had people all over the world supporting and writing to me about how they thought they were alone in this.
One woman from Palestine wrote about how she reported Arabs being called “sand people” and received the generic “doesn’t violate community standards” response. Another woman in England messaged me about how she’d reported a post calling black people lazy niggers. A Mexican woman posted about being told her relatives should be shot at the border. A few of my own friends posted about inbox messages they’d gotten calling them niggers and threatening violence and rape.
After receiving so many responses from so many people from so many different places, I wanted to do something we could all take part in. The blackout seemed like the easiest way for us all to take a united stand.
H: Had you tried communicating with Facebook in any other way first?
L: I didn’t try communicating any other way. Mark Zuckerberg has 34 million followers. He’s a billionaire. I thought it’d be a waste of time messaging hm or even writing a letter to Facebook.
I know that there’s strength in numbers and that most of the world has access to social media. I felt that using his own site to bring attention to the issue would bring much more than my one inbox or phone call to headquarters.
Also, I feel like if we can get enough people to join this action, it would make a significant impact to Facebook’s membership, and thus its revenue. I know that money talks and losing money screams.
H: What message do you want heard by Facebook, and what do you think they should have to do differently going forward?
L: I want Facebook to know that it’s a cyber model of white supremacy: silencing opposition of black, brown, red and yellow people being degraded and dehumanized, bending to and shielding the feelings of white people, and creating an environment where black, Native, Latin, Arab and Asian people do not feel safe. I want Facebook to know that our membership is huge and brings them revenue. We’re tired of our concerns being muted while the site cashes in on our participation.
We don’t expect Facebook to be able to censor every racist comment, but we do expect that when comments are reported using the method of Facebook’s creation, complaints will be taken seriously and that there will be no bias in which complaint violates standards.
H: Is this something you think Twitter and other social networking sites need to hear as well?
L: I absolutely think that all social networking sites should be mindful of creating similar environments to the hostile one created by Facebook. Any time you offer the kind of anonymity that these sites do, it will attract people who don’t have the balls to say all the vile, racist shit they want to say in person, so they’ll use the internet as a shield whilst getting that off their chests. So it’s becoming more and more crucial for social networking sites to not only create zero tolerance policies, but to adhere to them by developing systems that make reporting and addressing violations simple for users.
H: Do you have any plans to follow up on this action? How do you build on the momentum you’ve harnessed to create substantial change?
L: There are definitely plans to follow up. I’ve had the help of a great group of people to promote the blackout. We’ve discussed blacking out on a scheduled basis, maybe every third weekend of the month. We’re also planning to have everyone who blacked out mail a form letter demanding action from Facebook. A few people have suggested we call their offices daily to speak to the PR/Community Relations department. We’ve only just begun. Once the numbers get bigger — I have no doubt they will — we’ll be able to gain a lot of attention. We’ve also been tweeting all week under #fbblackout trying to get this event trending. Sooner or later, Facebook won’t be able to ignore the tweets, letters and calls.
H: Where can people keep up with these plans and where can you be found?
L : When I’m not blacking out, you can find me on Facebook at The Kinfolk Kollective, follow me on twitter @knflkkollective, check out #fbblackout on both sites, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
H: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I think it’s so important that these sites we flock to in order to stay in touch are safe for us — all of us — to do just that, and I hope Facebook hears your message loud and clear.
L: Thank you so much for blacking out with us this weekend!