Online feminist activists scored an impressive victory on Tuesday when Facebook formally responded to the joint coalition between Women, Action & the Media, Everyday Sexism, and activist Soraya Chemaly, requesting that Facebook “take concrete, effective action to end gender-based hate speech on its site.” The social media effort resulted in over 60,000 tweets and 5,000 emails to advertisers, imploring them to boycott Facebook unless Facebook agreed to change their policies around images and language of gender-based violence and hate speech.
For all intents and purposes, the campaign seems to have worked, as Facebook made a public statement agreeing to review and update their guidelines on appropriate content and a vow to work directly with coalition of feminist activists who created this campaign, among other specifics. This response is proof of the power that grassroots activist efforts have. Online feminists have scored similar victories in their collective response to last year’s debacle in which the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced plans to defund Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed in light of fierce online backlash, much of which was led by feminist activists. Facebook’s commitment to change is another feather in the cap of online feminists.
And yet, in the midst of the powerful feminist campaign demanding Facebook address gender-based hate speech and graphic images of gender-based violence, Facebook’s COO and corporate feminism’s new “it girl” Sheryl Sandberg has had nothing to say.
Sandberg’s personal Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as both accounts for her corporate feminist organization “Lean In,” have not once posted with regards to this powerful feminist campaign. Over 60,000 tweets, coverage in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and USA Today, as well as scores of other media outlets, and yet no comment or acknowledgment from Facebook’s own self-declared feminist about this movement or the horrific, violent, misogynistic content that Facebook has allowed.
I have written previously about what I perceive as the oxymoronic nature of corporate feminism, but nowhere is that more clear than in Sheryl Sandberg’s telling silence regarding her own place of employment.
Sandberg occupies an interesting space. She is both the new media darling of mainstream feminism and a notable face in the corporate world. Sandberg had a real opportunity to acknowledge and grapple with the tensions between corporate life and feminist activism in her own life. She had a chance to be a leader in Facebook’s commitment to ending gender-based hate speech and working to end rape culture in online spaces.
Instead, she said nothing.
Her silence says a lot, actually. It highlights the problematic nature of corporate feminism. In order to placate the powers that be (in this case, Facebook), activists often have to avoid or altogether ignore glaring issues of inequality or oppression. Rather than take a firm stand against gender-based hate speech and the normalization of images of violence against women in online spaces, Sandberg seemingly chose to remain loyal to her corporate bread-and-butter. Rather than stand in solidarity with the hundreds of feminist activists who tirelessly campaigned to get Facebook to take gender-based hate speech seriously, she instead sided with the corporate powers that be, a choice that so often happens when feminism and corporations intertwine. When balancing between corporate interests and feminist activism, it is all too often feminist principles which take a backseat to corporate profits.
Facebook’s response to this feminist campaign has promise, but it is important to note that corporations often say one thing and do another, especially when it comes to equality and the public interest. The network of feminist activists that brought about this response needs to remain diligent and hold Facebook accountable to the promises they have made.
But beyond that, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that corporate power structures, even when fronted by seemingly progressive or feminist-minded spokespeople, are interested in self-preservation and profits before all else. Sheryl Sandberg has used feminist networks to promote her book and organization, but when it comes to actual feminist activism and groundwork, her loyalties remain with a corporation, not genuine activist change.
Rather than place our hopes for change in the powers that be, this feminist coalition’s successful effort should be a lesson that the power for change exists within us. All we need to do is organize.