Thursday, April 28, 2011

Richard Metzger: How I became an accidental spokesperson for gay rights

Richard Metzger: How I, a married, middle-aged man, became an accidental spokesperson for gay rights overnight
Xeni Jardin
Tuesday, Apr 19, 2011

Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds (you may know him as founder of Disinformation, or as a BB guestblogger, or as the counterculture "Charlie Rose"), writes in with the odd story of a Facebook photo ban, and the media misinfo frenzy that followed.
Since just last Friday, the above photo, a publicity still from the popular BBC soap opera "EastEnders" has become the emblem of an utterly unnecessary Facebook scandal. One that's already gone international and one that I, personally, I am tangentially involved in. I say unnecessary because it never should have happened in the first place, but let me state this at the beginning of this for those of you--you know who you are-- who'll just read the first two paragraphs before zipping off to write something snarky in the comments: I do not personally believe that the Facebook corporation is in any way homophobic. Not even in the slightest. Okay?

Now that I've got that out of the way, here is what happened and why some people might think that they are:

On Friday afternoon, one of my fellow bloggers at Dangerous Minds, Niall O'Conghaile did a quickie cut-n-paste blog post about a "kiss-in" protest scheduled for that night in London at a pub where two young men had been asked to leave earlier in the week because they were kissing. You can read Niall's post here. He decided to use the above photo because he felt that it was inoffensive (Some outlets have reported that this photo came from the London "kiss-in" page on Facebook, but this is not true, it was Niall's choice and he found it on Google Images).

I posted this to my own Facebook wall as a matter of course. I put up all of the Dangerous Minds content on my wall. Sometime mid-day is when this would have gone up.

I didn't really pay that much attention to the matter, but before we went to sleep that night, my wife Tara McGinley, who also blogs at Dangerous Minds, mentioned that this heavy metal kinda guy "Jerry" had written a bunch of childish and homophobic things about this picture on my Facebook wall, saying that he found it "disgusting." Predictably, a bunch of people jumped all over him and right around 10:30pm Tara noticed that "Jerry" had deleted all of his comments and vamoosed.

The next morning I woke up around 6am to find a note from Facebook waiting for me with the ominous subject "Facebook Warning" informing me that I had posted "abusive material" which they had removed. Here's what it said:

"Hello: Content that you shared on Facebook has been removed because it violated Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Shares that contain nudity, or any kind of graphic or sexually suggestive content, are not permitted on Facebook.

This message serves as a warning. Additional violations may result in the termination of your account. Please read the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities carefully and refrain from posting abusive material in the future. Thanks in advance for your understanding and cooperation.

--The Facebook Team"

I assumed that the item in question was a post that had legitimately risqué footage of 1960s strippers in an embedded video and shrugged it off. I didn't even look. When my wife Tara woke up, I told her about the Facebook warning and she also assumed that it came as a result of the stripper footage.

Five minutes later she came into my office and said "You won't believe this. The thing Facebook cited you over? It was the thing about the kiss-in at the London pub that Niall posted."

Here is what I wrote back to Facebook:


Can you please tell me exactly what this objectionable post was? My FB profile is an extension of the Dangerous blog which gets around 200,000 daily readers and over 5 million a month. We post tons of content there, so it would be helpful to find out what this material was.

Does this mean that you got a specific complaint?

The more I thought about it, the more this minor act of censorship bothered me. It seemed so small-minded.

I wondered why Facebook would remove this rather innocuous photo and I was also pissed off that this "Jerry" fellow, this supposed "friend" of mine (someone I've never met of course) should be able to get something taken down from my wall simply because he's a whiner. I mean... look at that picture. They are both fully-clothed. It's a still from a popular prime-time (or "pre-watershed" as they say in the UK) BBC TV show, not a porn film! Why should this ridiculous homophobe heavy metal guy get to call the tune?

The stupidity of this situation really bugged me, so I sat down and wrote up a quick blog post because I was in such a snit about it. When I was adding HTML links I realized that the link in Niall O'Conghaile's original post to the Facebook page organizing the London pub "kiss-in" was now gone. I worked this in also, but only in the sense of asking IF there was a connection (I now know there wasn't, but I'll get to that part later). I put up the post, titled "Hey Facebook: What's SO wrong about a pic of two men kissing?" and went about my day.

Within a matter of minutes, that blog post was getting hundreds upon hundreds of shares. And then thousands and then tens of thousands. There are currently, as I type this, over 75,000 shares and over 1100 tweets. In just two days, considerably more than a million people have read that post. Without trying to, I wrote a blog post that was heard round the world. Had I known so many people would be reading it, I'd have spent more time polishing my prose.

The post I wrote is still being read by many hundreds more people every hour who come to the (I think false) conclusion that Facebook is a homophobic, evil company. As I stated at the beginning of this, I don't believe that is true. My beef with them was about "Jerry" as I think I make clear in my post, but other people, and I can't say I blame them, are jumping to different conclusions.

What pissed me off is that they let a knucklehead like my "friend" get away with this and allowed a dummy--the turd in the punchbowl-- to get the better of my nearly 5000 other "friends" who were laying into his dumbass with knives drawn! The group/tribe there wished to oust "Jerry" and his lowbrow homophobia from their midst. Why did Facebook side with him and not the vast majority of my "friends"? It was obvious that he was the irritant to the group at large, not the photograph! Him!

According to Facebook's FAQ on matters like this, EVERY claim of "abusive" posts is investigated by an actual live human being. If we take them at their word, it wasn't automatically deleted.

My assumption is that "Jerry" complained and that perhaps a conservative or religious person working for Facebook --maybe it was an outsourced worker in another country, I can't say--got that case number, looked at it for a split second, vaguely (or wholeheartedly, who can say?) agreed with "Jerry" (or it was just "easier" to "agree" with him as a matter of corporate policy) dinged it and moved on. I doubt that there was very, very little thought given to the matter. "Delete" and move on to the next item of "abusive material" on the list.


There is little else to report. How people reacted to it is in evidence all over Facebook now with thousands of people changing their photo to one of a same sex smooch. There are protests planned all over the world now. It has a life of its own now, but one that resulted from a mistake, ultimately.

The real problem here is certainly not that Facebook is a homophobic company. It's that their terrible corporate policy on censorship needs to stop siding with the idiots, the complainers and the least-enlightened and evolved amongst us as a matter of business expediency! That ill-advised policy can cause huge --and otherwise avoidable-- international public relations problems for them. Why just give that power to dummies and homophobes to use like a caveman club on the rest of us? It makes no rational sense (certainly not from a legal standpoint) and is anything BUT expedient when you consider the damage to their brand which can occur in a situation, ahem, exactly like this one.

They're a young company, but this is something that they've GOT to get right. If Facebook adopted new guidelines that would put the "burden of proof," so to speak, on the complaining party, this would have an undeniably positive effect on society at large because of the supremely high leverage point an entity like Facebook holds in cultures all over the world.

On Monday morning, I was contacted by a woman working with a foundation in New York that aims to accelerate full equality and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, about advising them on an advertising campaign hitting Facebook hard over this policy. This seems like an especially good idea to me. If Facebook can be persuaded to modify their censorship criteria, and PREVENT the stupids, the jerks, the blue-noses and the idiots from always having the advantage, the LGBT community will have won a very important battle FOR free speech and AGAINST hate speech and bullying.

It's a win-win situation all the way around for everyone except for the assholes. What do you say, Facebook?

[When I get a reply from Facebook, with an explanation which they owe not just to me, but everyone using their contraption I'll update this post. I still haven't gotten one. They know how to reach me, obviously.]

Addendum: I also wanted to mention that it turns out that the Facebook event for the "kiss-in" was not, in fact, blocked by Facebook, as I questioned on Saturday morning in my original post. The page was made private by the creator of the event itself, Paul Shetler, due to the"abusive material" that he was having to deal with himself left by homophobes and Internet trolls. Come Saturday morning it was a dead link. Paul Shetler wrote this in the comments of the post at Dangerous Minds to clear the matter up:

Paul Shetler says: Hey I just saw this. Before it goes too far, I just want people to know that FB have NOT removed the kiss-in event page; it's still there, but _I made the event private after the event_ was over and only visible to those who had been invited as there were starting to be trolls posting abusive nonsense on it.

Other people, seem to be confused about what exactly was taken down from my Facebook page, it was a link to the Dangerous Minds post that Niall wrote, not, as some seem to think, the link Paul refers to above.

Once more with feeling: They were two separate things, my speculation did not really assume they were conjoined matters, but I think I did confuse some readers. I noticed both things at the same time. My speculation in the first post was pretty clearly just that, speculation.

I'm not walking back what I wrote Saturday morning, I'm just reporting what subsequently came to light with Paul's note. Niall tried to clear up some of the confusion that we could see was happing in the comment with this follow-up post. It's worth mentioning that aside from this ZDnet article, almost everything I've been reading about this on Perez Hilton, The Advocate's blog and elsewhere, outlets both pro and con, even when they are trying to be supportive, are often really factually incorrect, or simply inept in their reporting, sometimes to a idiotic degree. It's been very odd to see all of this transpire. I've been accused of all kinds of nefarious things.

What still remains to be seen is why Facebook removed the original Dangerous Minds post from my personal profile with the warning that I had posted "abusive" material. Still waiting on that.

Culture, Sex, Technology • Tags: BBC, Facebook, Gay, Homosexual, LGBT, Social Media

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