With great abuse comes great impunity

In his very popular recent post, Umair writes that “The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today” and points out that “the average person can’t do anything about it.” He’s right. I know firsthand. As one of those people occasionally trying to do something about it, I wanted to write this as a sidebar to his post in order to give an idea of just how difficult it is to get the abuse addressed. In this case, the hosting site is Facebook.

Autism as scapegoat

We stand in shock and outrage in the aftermath of a mass shooting. We grieve for the victims and their families. We become anxious for our own safety and that of our friends and family. Perhaps more than anything else, we want to know why. Because if the cause is known, then we can do something to prevent another incident.

For some people, the “why” is autism. It doesn’t matter to people in this camp that studies show autistics are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. There is actually a stronger correlation between mass shooters and being a white male than there is to autism. Nobody is advocating locking up all white males as a solution to mass shootings.

But there are people regularly advocating sanctions against autistic people, up to and including killing all of us. Recently one of these people set up a page called Families Against Autistic Shooters. The page claimed that autism is the cause of mass shootings, and advocated various actions to contain the threat, all of which were targeted against the autistic population. Stopping just short of making an outright claim, the clear message of the page was this:
eliminate mass murder by eliminating autistics.

Naturally, the autistic community mobilized and reported the page to Facebook by the thousands. Even Forbes took note in an Emily Willingham article Facebook Declines to Remove Page Vilifying Autistic People. For several days and in the face of what must have been a stiff headwind of protest, the page remained.

Here is what that looked like from the perspective of an autistic person (me) reporting it:

Eventually, after many days, Facebook finally removed the page.

There is no social or reputational cost to posting such a page. As I noted in my Open Letter to Facebook’s Monika Bickert and Justin Osofsky, the administrator of the page is able to remain completely anonymous to the Facebook community. Only Facebook knows which account created the page and despite the “real names policy” even that is no guarantee of accountability.

What follows is an endless game of whack-a-mole (bat-a-rat for my European friends). While disappointing in many ways, the endless game of whack-a-mole would at least be actionable if Facebook gave a crap about the abuse. We could keep up if a few reports were sufficient to shut down a hate page. But since Facebook’s army of content police can’t recognize a hate page when they see it these pages become Sisyphean boulders that autistic Facebook members are forced to endlessly roll uphill.

You may be asking “but how bad could it be?” The page had been up several days when the Forbes article was published on October 5th and it took a few more days before the page was removed. After a short cooling off period, the page reappeared in the form of a Facebook community. Though it sports a different header image, much of the text is taken verbatim from the original page and the new community goes by the exact same name.

How’d that work out, you ask? I’ll give you one guess.

Move over Sisyphus. Another boulder comin’ at ya.