Last week, Gillette launched a new ad campaign critiquing toxic masculinity—and the responses have been mixed, to say the least. So-called men’s rights activists have criticised the advert for being too preachy and critical of all men (#notallmen). The usual right-wing trolls—Tomi Lahren, Paul Joseph Watson, Piers Morgan—have called for boycotts of Gillette and for its parent company, Procter & Gamble, to apologise. The fact that such commentators love to label the millennial generation “snowflakes” for caring about identity politics and social injustice, while getting viscerally offended by a two-minute advert is, apparently, an irony lost on them.
One Twitter user decided to flush his razor down the toilet in protest. The replies to his outburst were not too kind: “My man here ruining his plumbing because a commercial suggested that maybe he should be nicer.” On YouTube, at time of writing, the video has 656,000 likes and over 1.1 million dislikes.
The advert quotes Terry Crews, one of the leading examples of a more sensitive and considerate masculinity: “Men need to hold other men accountable.” As Rebecca Reid points out in her Telegraph column, “Men have just been told they’re not perfect by Gillette – that’s why they’re so angry.” The replies to the video on Gillette’s Twitter are, in equal parts, heartwarming and horrifying, many point out that the negative response is precisely why such a prominent advert is needed.
Because what does the advert actually say? How many people’s reactions were tempered by other reactions? Looking closely at the campaign itself, it’s hard to disagree with what they’re campaigning for. Although, perhaps, it’s a fault of the advert for not articulating the message clearly enough.
The advert marks thirty years of Gillette’s tagline, The Best A Man Can Get. This campaign, the company explains, is meant to interrogate that statement. “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
“From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.”
This seems like a brand becoming genuinely aware of itself and the world around it; Gillette has a platform for communicating with a large audience and is committing to doing so in a thoughtful and responsible way, right? This seems to be reinforced by a pledge to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to charities with ”programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal “best” and become role models for the next generation.”
It has partnered with Building A Better Man project, which seeks to reduce violent behaviour in young men, and The Boys and Girls Club of America, which helps young men develop better social and communication skills. The next ad in the series, no doubt in anticipation of the Super Bowl, partners with NFL rookie Shaquem Griffin: Your Best Never Comes Easy, reads the tagline. “From earning defensive player of the year in college, to suiting up for the Seattle Seahawks, hard work and a dedicated father have helped Shaquem overcome any obstacle”—what’s wrong with that?
Of course, there is also a cynical perspective one can take. P&G is a billion dollar company—its 2017 revenue was $65.05 billion—who could be seen to be cashing in on the current political moment of MeToo. The longterm buzz of this campaign is likely to outweigh any immediate backlash, as happened with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick partnership.
And, in an altogether misplaced critique, Piers Morgan pointed out that Chrissy Teigen, a spokesperson of Gillette’s line of razors for women, Venus, had posted transphobic and problematic tweets in the past: why weren’t they addressing this, he asked? Where’s the consistency? This is a valid question, but it doesn’t really detract from the core message of the new campaign, and for notorious transphobe Piers Morgan to be calling someone hypocritical for transphobia is taking both hypocrisy and obliviousness to new heights.
What is the best a man can get? Surely, calling for compassion doesn’t inherently sacrifice one’s masculinity? And to stand up against bullying and harassment—without using the old line “boys will be boys”—isn’t really too much to ask?
A recent study, titled Troll Patrol project, compiled jointly by Amnesty International and Element AI, a Canadian AI software firm, finds that black female journalists and politicians are 84 percent more likely to be the target of hate speech on Twitter. The study, carried out with the support of thousands of volunteers, examined roughly 228,000 tweets sent to 778 women politicians and journalists in the U.S. and U.K. in 2017. The report’s disturbing findings have sparked an international uproar and a barrage of criticism against the social media giant, which apparently fails to curb hate speech on its platform.
The study found that a total of 1.1 million dehumanising tweets were sent to the women examined, which is the equivalent of one every 30 seconds, and that 7.1 percent of all tweets sent to these women were abusive. Amnesty International regards such trolling as a violation of these women’s human rights, stating that “Our conclusion is that online abuse [works] against the freedom of expression for women because it gets them to withdraw, it gets them to limit their conversations and sometimes to leave the platform altogether… But we never really knew how big a problem was because Twitter holds all the data. Every time we ask for reports, they’re very vague, telling us that they’re taking some small steps. … Because they didn’t give us the data, we had to do it ourselves.”
Amnesty was soon joined by public figures, politicians, and organisations who criticised Twitter’s incompetent mechanism of removing abusive content and the company’s failure to properly adopt its recent policy revisions meant to strengthen monitoring of dangerous and offensive tweets. Twitter’s shares reportedly took a 12 percent nosedive yesterday, after being referred to as “toxic”, “uninvestable”, and “the Harvey Weinstein of social media” by an influential research firm called Citron. “The hate on Twitter is real and the company is not taking proper steps to curb the problem,” Citron said in a statement, adding that the company’s failure to “effectively tackle violence and abuse on the platform has a chilling effect on freedom of expression online.”
Similarly to Facebook, Twitter relies heavily on AI algorithms to spot and remove content deemed inappropriate, violent, or discriminatory. Yet, such machines often fail to pick up on hate speech that relies on context and is not easily discernible. A tweet like “Go back to the kitchen, where you belong”, for instance, will less likely be spotted by an AI machine than “all women are scum”.
Twitter, on its part, claims that ‘problematic speech’ is difficult to define and that often it’s hard to determine what counts as dehumanising. “I would note that the concept of ‘problematic’ content for the purposes of classifying content is one that warrants further discussion,” Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal officer, said in a statement, adding that “We work hard to build globally enforceable rules and have begun consulting the public as part of the process.”
There is no doubt that social media companies such as Twitter must further develop their content monitoring tools, by fusing AI algorithms with, yes, air-breathing-real-world humans, who prove to still be indispensable and irreplaceable. This, therefore, becomes not only a technology issue but an HR and resource allocation one; Twitter and its social media buds should increase the size of its content control divisions until machines can effectively and truly master the art of reading comprehension.
Other than forcing Twitter to get tougher on hate speech, people must take a moment to truly reflect on who the report identifies as the primary target of trolling: female minorities who raise their voice publicly, whether as a U.K parliament member, U.S. Congresswoman or Senator, or a journalist. The challenge is then not only to remove content that abuses minority women and discourages them from remaining visible and active, but also to recognise that we live in a society that still aggressively tries to silence them.
As we do so, we must simultaneously explore who are the people behind the 1.1 million abusive tweets; what segments of the population do they belong to? Who, exactly, are those so terrified of the prospect of having minority women fight for their rights? Should we lean on commonly-held assumptions regarding their identity, or will a data about them reveal a more complicated story? All of these questions should be the subject of further research, without which we could never truly tackle the plague of racism and misogyny.