On Second Thought, Facebook Would Prefer You Didn't Post Your Beheading Videos

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 10:06 AM

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August at a Facebook event. (Rubin Museum)

Wait, what? Facebook has once again updated its policy on beheading videos: they’re not allowed.

Or, mostly not allowed. Last night, Facebook removed a video of a beheading that they had previously defended. Before, Facebook said the video was OK because it had been posted to protest the violence it depicted, rather than to glorify it.

Here’s Facebook’s explanation for their rationale going forward:

First, when we review content that is reported to us, we will take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video, and will remove content that celebrates violence.

Second, we will consider whether the person posting the content is sharing it responsibly, such as accompanying the video or image with a warning and sharing it with an age-appropriate audience.

The first part sounds entirely reasonable. It’s the kind of consideration familiar to any news editor who’s consider publishing a disturbing image. The context of the image matters, and the way that image is framed for readers matters too.

The second part is the kind of bureaucratic naiveté that would only placate someone who’s never used a social networking site.

What constitutes “responsible” sharing, and how will Facebook identify it? And will Facebook really ratchet people’s ability to post objectionable material up and down based on the "age of their audience?" Should I defriend my teenaged cousins so that I can post sad, violent news articles? Does it matter that they’re sophisticated kids who read a lot and play too many violent video games?

Facebook started as a place to complain about college classes and has evolved into something much more complicated. One facet of that evolution is that we use Facebook as a news site, whether we like to admit it or not.

I don’t know how hard I’m willing to fight for the right to watch beheading videos on Facebook. I’ve never completely understood their news value, and they're awful and disturbing. What I would like, however, is to be confident that Facebook’s censorship policies are grounded in principle or consistent logic. Instead, the company seems motivated by the desire to get people to stop yelling at them, no matter how many maneuvers and contortions it takes. 

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