Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: July 2010 (page 1 of 5)

Facebook Responds

I’ve been writing about Facebook woes for nearly four months, so imagine my surprise yesterday when I received an e-mail from a Facebook staffer in response to my blog posts. Since I don’t have said staffer’s express permission to use his name or post his e-mail in its entirety, I will instead post the most remarkable excerpts with my own notes.

In reference to your most recent post concerning the exclusion of the term ‘Palestinian’ from Facebook Pages, I wanted to contact you personally and ensure you that this was a result of an anomaly in an automated system. This system’s intended purpose is to verify and authenticate Profile names and a previously unseen bug was applying these same rules to Pages. We are in the process of fixing this bug, if it hasn’t been rectified already.

As I noted yesterday morning, the problem had quickly been fixed. I’m not quite sure I believe that this was a “bug,” considering it only seemed to apply to “Nazi,” “Palestinian,” and “Al Qaeda,” however, I’m glad they’ve fixed it. Interestingly, there’s that automated system issue again. What I can infer from this note is that, likely due to user reports, the word “Palestinian” was somehow deemed inappropriate for Facebook Pages.

Additionally, we understand our product forms a valuable resource to many in the human rights and global advocacy community, and please don’t hesitate to e-mail me directly in the future with any specific problems of bonafide activists and organizers.

That’s wonderful news. I hope he means it, unlike his fellow Facebook staffer Barry Schnitt, who
left a comment on Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog with the same invitation, then failed to respond to several e-mails sent from users with concerns.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not all that different from how other social media companies get to activist concerns quickly. There have been several situations in which an activist has contacted me, or someone else in the field, and one of us has utilized our contacts to quickly reach someone at a social media company and rectify the problem. As we all realize, however, this is neither practical nor sustainable.

In the e-mail, the staffer also alludes to reading my blog and being aware of my upcoming paper on policing content in these spheres. I’m glad–my goal in writing these posts has been to get Facebook’s attention, and it has apparently worked. The next step, of course, is to make sure that we can keep their attention and ensure that activists who use the platform are safe.

Facebook: “No Palestinian Pages”

As of July 26 at 8:17 DST, I can now create pages with the word “Palestinian” in them. Congrats–all of your contact messages to Facebook clearly worked.

Note: I had no idea this post was going to get as much attention as it did.  Regardless, readers, I am not implying some vast Facebook conspiracy against Palestinians, just demonstrating yet another example of Facebook’s inconsistency, lack of attention to human rights, and lack of appeals processes.  New readers: There’s a history here; you may want to check the archives or read this post.

I was surprised, but a little skeptical, this morning when I read a blog post stating that Facebook is blocking the word “Palestinian” from its Pages.  After all, a search for “Palestinian” brings back a number of already created Pages.  Here’s what the blogger wrote:

I thought it might be a good idea to make a Facebook page for Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet—a straight-forward thing to do, right? Apparently not, since it seems the very word Palestinian may “violate or page guidelines or contain a word or phrase that is blocked”……A mistake, perhaps? Well, Afghan Refugee ResearchNet is OK. So too is DR Congo RefugeeResearchNet. No threats to innocent Facebook users lurking in those terms, it seems…

…Are Palestinians the only group so banned? Well, not really… after a little fiddling around, I discovered that al-Qaida Refugee ResearchNet and Nazi Refugee ResearchNet are banned too.

It does seem a bit odd, however, that a population of up to 12 million people, receiving more than a billion dollars in international aid, recognized by the UN, and enjoying a degree of formal diplomatic recognition from the United States—is placed in the same banned category as Nazis and al-Qaida.

Odd, indeed.  I decided to try it for myself, with the terms “Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet,” “Palestinian Folklore,” and “Palestinian Music”.  Nada.

Of course, “Israeli Music,” “Israeli Folklore” and “Israeli Refugee ResearchNet” all created no problems.

(see more screenshots of different keyword combinations here)

What is Facebook trying to accomplish by eliminating page creation for a marginalized population?  I would guess that they were trying to prevent abuse of some kind (e.g., pages set up to demean a certain group), but I can’t imagine what kind of abuse would affect Palestinians and not, for example, Israelis.

In any case, as usual, Facebook does not have a strong customer support team to handle complaints about this, nor do they seem to care.  After all, this was their response to the blogger who first documented this:

Unfortunately, we cannot process this request. Your Page name must comply with the following standards:

  • Accurately and concisely represent a musician, public figure, business or other organization
  • Not contain terms or phrases that may be abusive
  • Not be excessively long
  • Not contain variations of “Facebook”

If you believe your Page name fits within these guidelines, please respond to this email and we will re-evaluate your request.

Again, activists, I would advise you to stop using Facebook.

More clarification for you skimmers:
1) This affects PAGES, not GROUPS.
2) The term that is blocked is “Palestinian,” not “Palestine.”
3) There are 1,200 existing groups with “Palestinian,” suggesting that the word was blacklisted recently.

Is Vaseline’s Skin-Lightening App Racist?

When I read danah boyd’s post on Vaseline’s skin lightening Facebook app, I was a bit disappointed; her post touched on all of the important issues surrounding the concept of skin lightening, but then landed on the premise that the debate around them, and more specifically the Vaseline app, are taking place primarily in (presumably white) American circles.  Here’s a quick background: Vaseline creates a skin lightening app for Facebook, targeted to India, where skin lightening creams are popular (they’re also popular in the Arab world–Cheb Khaled’s “Baida” anyone?–and elsewhere).  Outrage ensues, much of it coming from Americans.  The story hits the media–more outrage from Americans.  danah writes:

As people start finding out about this App, a huge uproar exploded. Only, to the best that I can tell, the uproar is entirely American. With Americans telling other Americans that Vaseline is being racist. But how are Indians reading the ads? And why aren’t Americans critical of the tanning products that Vaseline and related companies make? Frankly, I’m struggling to make sense of the complex narratives that are playing out right now.

In one sense, she’s very much right:  White American liberals do have a tendency to assume racism and jump on it, and in any case, we absolutely should be listening to Indians on the subject.  An all-white conversation of skin lightening is a bit disingenuous.  It’s all to easy to say that the desire for lighter skin is rooted in colonialism, whilst ignoring the fact that such views are perpetuated generations  later.  People of color are those affected by these products, and though views found within various communities are incredibly diverse, no discussion on the subject is complete without them.

But she’s also wrong, in a sense:  Though the discussion does seem to be trending in American media, there have been plenty of narratives in the English-language Indian media, the Arab blogosphere, and the Indian blogosphere on the matter.  You just have to know where to find them (or as Ethan Zuckerman might suggest, perhaps you need a guide).

One issue that has been mostly left out of the discussion is the fact that the vast majority of skin lightening/whitening products are made by Western (and often, American) companies (others are made in local markets, or in Japan).  Vaseline, Fair & Lovely (owned by Unilever), and Dove (known in the US for promoting body acceptance) seem to be the big three, and market to the Subcontinent, as well as Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.

The advertising of these products often feels racially-charged as well.  One advertisement I recall from Saudi channel MBC4 shows a woman with dark but clear skin getting turned down for an on-screen media job.  She uses Fair & Lovely, goes back for another interview and lo!–is hired on the spot, thanks to her lighter skin.  Though the conversations around the products may vary, I don’t know if there’s any genuine disagreeing that this particular ad is racist.  (Hilariously, my drama club students in Morocco parodied the ad in a skit, having the woman instead turn into a green monster upon using the product).

In any case, here are a few non-American perspectives on the app, and on skin lighteners in general:

Bonus reads: Indian vogue takes on colorism and India’s unbearable lightness of being (groan).

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