What exactly does Facebook mean by “community standards” when it chooses to take down – or not take down – a page reported by a user? An informal collective of women from Kerala, accusing Facebook of “mysteriously” allowing misogynistic abuse, has now launched an online campaign to find out.

The group, called “Against Cyber Attacks on Women”, banded together after several women with leftist and feminist views became targets of online sexual harassment and had their Facebook profiles unfairly suspended in the past few months. Supported by a host of other women’s rights and digital rights organisations, the collective now wants Facebook to rethink its policies on tackling abuse and maintaining user privacy.

Two weeks ago, activists from Against Cyber Attacks, Global Voices Advocacy and other organisations held two online meetings with representatives of Facebook’s US and South Asia policy teams to discuss these issues.

The two major demands placed by activists were that Facebook must have regional language experts to assess the content and cultural contexts of hate pages and reported profiles, and that the social network must not insist on the use of real names after an account has been suspended and reinstated.

Facebook is yet to respond to the group about the concerns raised in the meeting.

How it began

In July, social activist Preetha G Nair wrote a Facebook post in Malayalam criticising G Sudhakaran, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former Kerala minister, for making sexist remarks. Nair, who has more than 25,000 Facebook followers, was soon bombarded with personal attacks and abuse by cyber trolls. One of Sudhakaran’s online supporters reported Nair’s account as a fake profile page.

Facebook responded immediately by suspending Nair’s account for violating its “community standards”. It was reinstated after due verification, but barely a week later, Nair had to go through the whole ordeal again.

This time, when she wrote a post critical of late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s politics, the outrage against her was brazenly sexist. Trolls created a fake Facebook profile depicting Nair as a prostitute and using photos of her children and friends to launch vicious, sexualised verbal abuse at them. Other hate pages also began to appear, and there were attempts to hack into Nair’s account.

“Several people reported these hate pages, but Facebook did not take them down,” said Inji Pennu, a journalist who supported Nair and is now a member of the Against Cyber Attacks collective. Even the Kerala Cyber Cell did not react to the online harassment directed towards Nair.

Targeting only women?

To those who complained against the abusive hate pages – mostly in Malayalam – against Nair, Facebook sent a message saying the page did not violate its community standards. “There were six hate pages that came up within three weeks,” said Pennu, who lives in Miami, USA. The pages were taken down only when members of Against Cyber Attacks reached out to Facebook staff through the “backdoor”, through their personal networks. “When they were reported directly on Facebook, nothing happened.”

Meanwhile, several women who used Facebook to voice their support for Nair also began to face cyber abuse. “Many people came to support Nair in public, but mysteriously, only the female profiles were attacked,” said Against Cyber Attacks in a formal press release.

When Pennu wrote an article about the Nair controversy, cyber trolls threatened to “take down her family and choke her”. Her Facebook account was suspended after an anonymous complaint by someone claimed that her profile name was fake. In an August 5 blog post titled “Leaning out from Facebook”, Pennu describes how this was not the first time she was targeted on social media simply for being a woman voicing strong political views on a public platform:
“One time I wrote about my interest to eat beef, group of men came and threatened me in my blog that they will kill me for insulting the cow. One time when I wrote about copyrights for pictures, a group of men, traced me down, called me at my home, put up my email id and details in a porn website. [sic]”

By suspending her page and demanding proof of identification to re-activate it, Pennu claims Facebook is “siding with the trolls” and violating her right to privacy.

The name dilemma

In the first week of August, when Nair’s supporters were trying to get Facebook to take down the abusive fake profiles maligning her, Nair’s original account was once again suspended. Facebook had responded to complaints that claimed Nair was violating the company’s “real name policy” that doesn’t allow the use of fake names or nicknames. When Facebook re-activated her page, it displayed her full name with surname, instead of just “Preetha” that she had always used online.

In an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on August 4, Nair spoke out against Facebook’s culturally insensitive real name policy that compelled her to use her “casteist patriarchal surname” and reveal her caste identity to everyone online.

Pointing out that social media platforms provide a voice for people from marginalised castes and other groups, Nair wrote: “As a preliminary step in getting rid of the evil caste system, several people...try not to use their caste symbol in [their] name in social platforms like FB. I hope you...make provisions to remove caste affiliated surnames for those like me who wish to do so.”

This has now become one of key demands that the team at Against Cyber Attacks has made of Facebook: getting rid of the “real name policy” so that users can retain their choice to discard caste markers or use nicknames even if their profiles are reported and verified.

The other key demand is to institute a more culturally informed response system to tackle hate pages in languages other than English. Facebook, the collective claims, needs “linguist experts who can really understand regional languages and the complexity of non-English cultures”.

What Facebook says

In response to Scroll's email queries, a spokesperson from Facebook stated that the company has several dedicated teams of reviewers who go through "millions of pieces of reported content" in several languages other than English and take action against accounts that violate their community standards.

"We constantly listen to feedback from the community to ensure we are managing and implementing our policies consistent with the needs of a growing and changing community," the spokesperson said.

Asking people to use authentic names, the spokesperson said, encourages responsible behaviour, but Facebook does not expect users to submit legal identity proofs to verify accounts - even school or employment IDs are accepted. "We also do not change the name on the account without first confirming
that the person is ready to have her Facebook profile name updated to reflect her authentic name."