Facebook's ban of Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle reveals censorship hypocrisy

Celeste Liddle: "Over and over again, we report racism and sexism and we are continually told this does not violate ...

Celeste Liddle: "Over and over again, we report racism and sexism and we are continually told this does not violate their guidelines yet apparently two female elders participating in culture does. "

On the morning of International Women's Day, I opened my Facebook account to find a welcome message solely designed to celebrate IWD. 

"It's International Women's Day!" it screamed. "Here's to equality for women worldwide."

That same day, Indigenous writer and activist Celeste Liddle delivered the IWD keynote address at the Queen Victoria Centre in Melbourne. Her speech discussed issues of colonialism, White Feminism and Indigenous voices in the battle for gender equality. It was republished one day later by New Matilda, illustrated by a an accompanying image of two Aboriginal women with painted chests and bare breasts practicing cultural ceremony in the desert.  

Two Aboriginal women at a Northern Territory public ceremony, published by New Matilda.

Two Aboriginal women at a Northern Territory public ceremony, published by New Matilda. Photo: Chris Graham, At Large Media

But after sharing the link to much acclaim on her public page, Black Feminist Ranter, Liddle promptly received a 24 hour ban. The reason? She had "violated community guidelines by posting nudity or material of a sexually suggestive nature." Three hours after her account had been reinstated she was banned again, this time for three days. According to Liddle, this is because she has been deemed a "repeat offender". 


What's the connection between Liddle's ban and Facebook's pretence at IWD solidarity? After all, a message celebrating the latter on seems like quite a reasonable gesture on the surface, certainly one with no nefarious undertones. What's wrong with a company offering their support like this?

Well, nothing - unless you consider it alongside the canyon of hypocrisy held by Facebook in all their dealings with the actual women (like Liddle) who use their platform. This heavy handed behaviour isn't new. In fact, Facebook is well known for displaying bizarre double standards on the supposed 'values' it holds dear, repeatedly acting to protect the "freedom of speech" of people who use their service to bully, demean and degrade others (especially women) while responding mercilessly to users who commit horrendously offensive infractions like posting photographs of themselves breastfeeding. 

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

Liddle isn't the only woman who's been targeted for bans by Facebook for supposed "guideline violations" while demonstrated racists, misogynists and other social miscreants are given free rein to behave as abusively as they please. I've also experienced this first hand. Last year, the private message service on my public Facebook page was bombarded with unsolicited messages from men (all of whom were strangers) demanding that I send them nude photographs, calling me names like "slut" and "whore" and, in some cases, sending me images of what they presented as their own erect penises. In addition to this, the comments threads of my public posts were filled with men contributing much of the same (minus the dick pics). In one instance, a man told me to sit on a butcher's knife so that I could never reproduce. 

When this comment and others like it were reported, the same response kept being handed down - they were not in violation of the company's community guidelines, and all I could do was politely ask the offenders to remove them. 

Instead of embarking on the entirely fruitless exercise of trying to reason with the people who see women as objects to be ridiculed and degraded, I chose instead to screencap and post their messages on my wall. 

It turns out that the men happy to send you private messages calling you a dog and saying you need a "good hard cock up ya" don't much like it when you show the world what they consider a good time. And Facebook doesn't much like it either. As a noted "repeat offender" myself, I was given a 30 day ban. In the world of Facebook, sending a woman violent degrading messages is exercising freedom of speech. Sharing those messages, on the other hand, is a violation of privacy. 

Another journalist friend of mine was recently sanctioned by Facebook for similarly confounding reasons. A man had left a comment on her public page calling her a "slut" and a "moll". She posted a humorous reply correcting his grammar, and BOOM. A stern warning followed demanding she prove her identity as well as her comment being removed.

Then there are the thousands upon thousands of women who receive bans for posting breastfeeding photographs - the explanation Facebook offers to these "repeat offenders" is the same given to Liddle: that these non-sexualised images of breasts are unacceptable because they might be considered "culturally offensive" by some of Facebook's users. 

Facebook has since issued a tepid statement about their decision to ban Liddle, although it should be noted they've sent this to media outlets and not to Liddle herself. In it, they repeat their claim this is about ensuring safety for those who may be culturally offended by the sight of nudity (as opposed to realising how offensive it is to declare Indigenous cultural practice the equivalent of pornography. They finish by encouraging users to continue sharing Liddle's speech, as long as it's minus the supposedly contentious image. 

As Liddle told me, "Their justification is rubbish. Over and over again, we report racism and sexism (usually of a graphic and violent nature) and we are continually told this does not violate their guidelines yet apparently two female elders participating in culture does. As stated in my speech, the real offence here is whether or not the image offends the white male gaze."

And this is the crux of the issue. Because let's be clear, the only culture at risk of being "offended" by the image of a non-sexualised breast (or by the thought of women retaliating against misogyny, particularly when it's racialised) is the frat boy culture that permeates Facebook's headquarters. This culture of white supremacist male entitlement thrives on the sexualisation and objectification of women's bodies. It defends the use of degrading, misogynist "humour" as something not only innate to democracy but also the responsibility of hyper-precious, irrational women to just "get over". 

But we shouldn't have to get over this behaviour or "just ignore it" as we're also constantly instructed to do. Nor is it reasonable to tell those victimised by Facebook's intermittently lax and stringent policies to stop using the site. Facebook isn't small fry - in terms of business, it's essential to the modern marketplace. Freelance writers like Liddle especially have no choice but to use the platform if they want to work, it's as simple as that. If you encountered abuse from passengers and service operators every time you caught the train to work in the morning, would you expect to be supported in your efforts to complain or would you just resign yourself to having to find alternative travel plans? 

As Liddle says, "Both the Indigenous community and the feminist community use social media at higher rates than other people and as an Indigenous feminist writer, to be isolated from those communities in this channel is just not doable. Likewise, Facebook is an incredibly important tool in union organising, which is what I do full time. Giving up on Facebook is not the solution, pushing for change is."

So yes, here's to equality for women worldwide. But while it's a nice thought for a company invested in maintaining users to have, perhaps Facebook could begin by prioritising equality for women on its own rank platform. Until then, their 'solidarity' is nothing but an empty gesture. 

Update: Celeste Liddle's three day ban ended on Monday night, but she was promptly banned again for another seven days after sharing a news story documenting her ban. She has yet to be contacted directly by someone from Facebook.