Another rabble-rousing community page is testing the limits of Facebook’s policies regarding offensive content, only this time it’s the devoutly religious who say they are the target of hate speech.
A group of Christian activists is calling on Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) to remove the page “Virgin Mary Should’ve Aborted,” calling it an attack on their faith and saying it violates the website’s policies against hate speech. The page, created in February, is described by its administrators as a “playground for fundamentalists and free-thinkers to challenge each other.” It includes numerous memes and status updates attacking organized religion as outdated, bigoted and harmful to society.
The page’s anonymous administrators are listed as “Z” and “Lilith,” two 20-something women who identify themselves as students. In the page’s description, the admins say the page is satire and meant to spark a debate:
“The purpose here is exposing the heinous absurdity that is organized religion, and its detrimental affects [sic] on seemingly reasonable human beings. We call religious bigots on their blatant hate, rustling their jimmies with obvious satire.”
But religious groups argue that the page is hate speech, saying it is just a small example of anti-religious material that appears regularly on the site, often posted by atheists. At least two online petitions are calling on Facebook to ban “Virgin Mary Should’ve Aborted,” and together they have attracted more than 20,000 signatures. Additionally, Twitter users have been using the hashtag #StopFBAntiChristianBias to draw attention to the issue.
One petition, launched by the nonprofit Catholic group America Needs Fatima, appeals directly to Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in an open letter:
“This page quite obviously violates Facebook’s hate speech policies. And it is offensive to the belief of over a billion Christians worldwide and directly offends, insults, demeans, and shows hatred for what Catholics hold most dear. Many of the comments, especially those of the page’s creator, clearly show the intent is to vent hate and insult the Catholic faith.”
A Facebook spokeswoman, however, disagreed. She told IBTimes that the page in question does not appear to violate its policies, as it is less an attack on a specific group of people than an attack on an idea, in this case organized religion. Moreover, the page does not appear to contain threats of real-world violence or destruction, both of which would be cause for action by Facebook, as was codified in a recent post on controversial speech:
“We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial. We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying).”
That post appeared on May 28, following a fervent campaign against hate speech that targeted women and girls, a problem that critics said Facebook did not take seriously enough. In a boycott effort at the time, activists took to Twitter using the hashtag #FBrape, calling out advertisers whose ads appeared alongside offensive, often graphic content making light of violence against women. The high-profile effort highlighted not only the general difficulty of defining hate speech -- a term with no single legal definition -- but also Facebook’s constant struggle to balance free expression with civility in a community of one billion-plus users.
A week into the #FBrape boycott, Facebook conceded that it needed to reevaluate the criteria it uses to determine what deems a violation of its community standards. It also said it would update the kind of training its teams use to monitor reports and evaluate offensive content. However, the website said then, as it maintains now, that content is not deemed in violation simply because it is offensive or controversial. “[T]here are instances of offensive content, including distasteful humor, that are not hate speech according to our definition,” the website said.
As of Monday afternoon, Virgin Mary Should’ve Aborted had more than 5,200 likes.