Starting August 1st, the “Mother’s International Lactation Campaign” (MILC) is having a virtual “nurse-in” to protest Facebook’s removal of certain users’ breastfeeding photos from its site. The week-long “nurse-in” will run until August 7th, in conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week.
This won’t be the first time online “lactivists” use Facebook’s social media platform to protest the site’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
In response to growing anger over Facebook’s selective deletion of breastfeeding photos due to “nudity,” MILC organized the first Facebook “nurse-in” in late December 2008. It was easy to participate: all participants had to do was change their Facebook profile picture to one of a baby or an animal being breast-fed, and change their status update to “Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” for one day (December 27, 2008).
The campaign got people talking. According to MILC’s Facebook page, more than 11,500 people participated, and the event drew media attention from outlets ranging from Time to CNN.
Since then, membership in the “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” group has grown to nearly a quarter of a million members.
For next week’s “nurse-in,” supporters are again being asked to change their profile pictures and status updates, to send a collective message to Facebook management that breastfeeding pictures should not be considered obscene – and should all be allowed to be posted on Facebook.
For Facebook, a complicated issue
As this story has gained momentum, Facebook has remained consistent in its position: the company publicly endorses breastfeeding, and allows thousands of breastfeeding photos which conform to its rules for photography (specifically, photos showing women’s breasts on the site cannot show the nipple or areola, according to MSNBC). But it reserves the right to remove photos which don’t follow its terms, in the interests of keeping the site a “safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children (over the age of 13) who use the site,” according to Facebook spokesman Simon Axten in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
Frankly, Facebook is in a tough spot here. If Facebook’s position is that full breast shots are inappropriate for teenagers who are allowed to use the site, the context of the shot is arguably irrelevant. Nursing Moms aren't Facebook's only stakeholder audience, and the company has to balance competing interests as best it can.
There’s a valid case to be made about the difference between a pornographic image and a picture of a baby whose head doesn’t completely cover his mother’s nipple – but I can also see why Facebook might be wary of allowing interpretation of its rules. In addition to undermining its position on what constitutes "nudity," opening the door on something like this can open other cans of worms; it's much easier to identify "nipple" than it is to identify "pornography." If you ban the first, you automatically catch the second (in breast shots, at least). If you don't, there are lots of people out there who'll be ready to argue "pornography" vs. "art" – a debate I'm sure Facebook would rather avoid.
Given the power of the Facebook platform to bring thousands of people together and mobilize them to act, there would seem to be a good fit for working together toward a larger objective, rather than arguing over something as relatively small as a handful of deleted pictures. In the PR game, we strive for two-way symmetrical communication – when two sides listen to each other, and make decisions that will be mutually beneficial. But while two-way symmetrical communication is the ideal, it’s not always easy to achieve: both sides have to be willing to compromise, and make concessions for the greater good.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out next week.