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Facebook is dealing with a massive revenge porn problem

This is on top of its other challenges with controversial material.
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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If it wasn't already apparent that Facebook faces a lot of challenges when grappling with sensitive material, it is now. As part of a slow but steady file leak, the Guardian has revealed that Facebook has faced at least one recent surge in revenge porn and sexual extortion cases -- 54,000 potential cases just in January. The company ended up disabling over 14,000 accounts involved in these disputes, 33 of which involved children. It's not clear how this compares to other periods (Facebook doesn't divulge specific figures), but that's no small amount.

The company's Global Policy Management head, Monika Bickert, is quick to acknowledge that this isn't an easy problem to solve. She notes that Facebook uses image screening to catch some of these instances and seeks to "constantly review and improve" its policies, but points out that these are "complex areas." Facebook is "determined to get it right," Bickert says. A Guardian source adds that Facebook's moderators tend to "make [the] most mistakes" with sexual policy due to its "very complex" nature.

Some of Facebook's steps to address its overall content monitoring are likely to help here. For example, it's hiring 3,000 new moderators on top of its existing 4,500 -- that could help staff devote more time to each case and reduce the chances that a violator will slip through the cracks.

The policy itself doesn't make things easy, though. Like in other areas, Facebook is trying to straddle the line between freedom of expression and protecting users, and you might not always be happy with its approach. It'll allow "moderate" portrayals of sexuality, including clothed simulated sex and pixelated acts, but not overt imagery or digitally created nude art. You can post generic expressions of sexual desire (including some raunchy language), but you cross the line when you target a specific person or go into detail. And you're technically allowed to solicit sex, but only if you avoid clearly outlining the acts.

Confused yet? You can see the problem. While Facebook is undoubtedly aware that it risks being heavy-handed, there's some wiggle room as to what constitutes an offense. You could rightly argue that revenge porn isn't that ambiguous (is it a photo shared without consent for the purposes of titillation? Then it's wrong), but it's easy to envision situations where a post is technically allowed but might be offensive to most people, such as expressing some non-specific lust in the comments on a photo. Until Facebook has spent more time refining its methods, you could see some troublemakers go scot-free.

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