Censoring Facebook: Social network's violent video dilemma

Teenager looks at Facebook Facebook said on average 665 million people accessed its site every day in March

Related Stories

Facebook's decision to remove videos showing people being decapitated leaves the firm in a quandary: should or shouldn't it impose a wider censorship policy?

Originally the social network rejected calls from users to delete the clips saying that it wanted to "preserve people's rights to describe, depict and comment on the world".

But after the BBC revealed that one of its own safety advisers - the head of the Family Online Safety Institute - had criticised its decision, the firm announced a U-turn, saying it would remove clips showing beheadings while it re-evaluated its rules.

That potentially opens a can of worms.

Since publishing the article, readers have contacted the BBC to complain about other videos, including:

  • one that shows killings which do not involve beheadings
  • clips involving cruelty to dogs and other animals
  • a smartphone recording of a schoolgirl being punched to the ground by another pupil

In all cases they said the network had refused their requests to remove the material. A spokeswoman for Facebook confirmed its policy had only been amended in regard to decapitations.

But imposing stricter controls would open the firm up to other criticism.

Before his death, internet freedom campaigner Aaron Swartz warned of the dangers of privately owned parts of the net limiting what was posted onto their sites. He called this "corporate tyranny" and named Facebook as a specific concern.

The social network could not provide a date for when its review would be complete. The following range of opinions suggest it will struggle to please everyone.

Richard Allan, Facebook

Start Quote

Richard Allan

This is a complex challenge as Facebook is a large, diverse community”

End Quote

More than a billion people express themselves and comment on the world in which we live through Facebook and most of the time this is entirely without problem.

On occasions, there are concerns about some of the content that is being shared and we have put in place a reporting system so that people can tell us about this.

The reported content is evaluated against our community standards and appropriate action is taken where our rules have been breached.

When drawing up and enforcing our approach to acceptable behaviour and content on Facebook, we aim to strike the right balance between enabling people to share information, news and content - and protecting the community as a whole.

This is a complex challenge as Facebook is a large, diverse community and we are continually presented with novel situations.

While we freely admit that we do not always get it right, the trouble-free daily experience of the vast majority of Facebook users demonstrates that our systems are working well in all but the most exceptional cases and that they are improving over time.

Richard Allan

  • Joined Facebook in 2009 to become its director of policy in Europe, Middle East and Africa
  • Previously a Liberal Democrat MP

As we said last week, we are reviewing our rules related to content showing graphic violence.

In doing so we are clear that there are situations where it is important for people to be able to share content through Facebook even if this can at times be quite shocking.

For example, people caught up in violent incidents such as the recent Boston bombings or the ongoing conflict in Syria want to be able to report on their experiences and may use quite graphic content to do this.

This illustrates the kind of challenge that our highly experienced team deals with on a daily basis as we strive to offer a space for sharing that is mindful of everyone's expectations.

Celia Mellow, petition organiser

Start Quote

Celia Mellow

What I feared the most was that my younger sister could easily have witnessed that disgusting video”

End Quote

As a person who holds a strong sense of justice, I had no hesitation in setting up a petition for the removal of the sickening decapitation video I was shocked to find on my Facebook news feed.

What shocked me even more was the fact that I had to actually make a petition in any hope for the video to be removed.

No matter how many times my friends and I reported it, we all received the same message, stating that "it doesn't violate Facebook's community standard on graphic violence, which includes depicting harm to someone or something".

How does a video of an innocent woman being brutally murdered not "violate" this? I can only hope that there is a criminal investigation that will bring her justice.

As a loyal Facebook fan, I understand that Facebook is only allowing people to have freedom of speech. However, I think it is about time they drew a line between what is and isn't appropriate for the public.

Celia Mellow

  • Surrey-based 15-year-old who started a petition to urge Facebook to delete decapitation videos
  • Plans to join the police after leaving school

Facebook's audience starts from children aged 13 - what I feared the most was that my younger sister could easily have witnessed that disgusting video.

No-one should be exposed to such graphic horror. Sadly, that video isn't the only inappropriate content to have wandered onto Facebook recently. I have heard of others showing extreme violence and cruelty to both humans and animals.

It's time that new stricter regulations are made by Facebook in order to remove these vile videos for good so that it might return to being the safe social network it used to be.

Jeremie Zimmermann, La Quadrature du Net

Start Quote

Jeremie Zimmermann

Any intervention by Facebook to remove or block access to content... would in practice amount to privatised censorship”

End Quote

Any intervention by Facebook to remove or block access to content beyond what a court might order - while respecting basic fundamental rights and the principle of proportionality - would in practice amount to privatised censorship, and nobody has an interest in going there.

A dominant, centralised actor such as Facebook would be incentivised to spend as little money as possible determining which content would be lawful or not, suitable or not, etc.

This would raise the question of what criteria would be used. Opening such a breach would ensure that any government could pressure Facebook to consider their own criteria, whether for political, religious or other reasons.

Under such conditions we can be sure that the fundamental right to freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial would not be respected.

As surely as we cannot trust giant centralised corporations to defend our fundamental freedoms, we cannot ask them to become the judges and enforcers of what information should be shared online.

Jeremie Zimmermann

  • Co-founder of the French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net
  • Campaigns for the "free circulation of knowledge" on the internet

Protecting children on the net is a responsibility of their parents in the first place. It cannot be outsourced to Facebook.

It is a matter of educating them about the difference between between privacy, publicity and a circle of trust.

Since Facebook collects and stores so much information it should be able to determine when one of its members is a minor and is about to be exposed to content that has been reported as unsuitable, and display a warning message.

Users would then be free to choose to take that advice, or make a conscious choice to access the content.

Stephen Balkam, Family Online Safety Institute (Fosi)

Start Quote

Steve Balkam

This is new territory for us all”

End Quote

Facebook, and most other social media sites, have explicit terms of service about what is and what is not acceptable to be hosted on their websites.

Stephen Balkam

  • Chief executive of Fosi
  • One of five charity leaders consulted by Facebook about online safety issues

Some go further and have created what are known as community standards.

These more clearly state the rules about what kinds of content will be removed.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have robust reporting mechanisms so that ordinary users can flag inappropriate or abusive content for review.

What is challenging for these companies is how and where to draw the line.

This will help them determine when to invoke the "public interest" principle in keeping material - such as images from the Boston Marathon bombing - up on their site, even though they depict graphic violence.

This is new territory for us all as we navigate the rules, ethics and standards of user-generated content sites.

Andrew McDiarmid, Center for Democracy & Technology

Start Quote

Andrew McDiarmid

Platforms have a responsibility to consider the human rights impact of their policies”

End Quote

The controversy over Facebook's treatment of shocking videos of beheadings is the latest illustration of the enormous complexity at work when it comes to promoting the exercise of human rights online.

Billions of people rely on internet platforms to speak and access information in the networked public sphere, but the platforms are controlled by private companies, whose terms of service in large part determine the contours of free expression.

In one sense, platform operators are themselves speakers that have the right to determine their own policies. At the same time, these "digital sovereigns" - to borrow a phrase from Rebecca MacKinnon - effectively govern their users' exercise of free expression rights.

Platforms have a responsibility, particularly as they grow to Facebook-scale, to consider the human rights impact of their policies and to minimise restrictions on free expression.

Andrew McDiarmid

  • Senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington DC
  • The non-profit organisation campaigns against government censorship and other threats to the free flow of information on the internet

This is especially true with respect to government restrictions. It would be troubling indeed if government pressure precipitated the video's removal in this case.

A key step in carrying out this responsibility is ensuring that content policies are clearly communicated and fairly applied.

The horrific beheading video and Facebook's reported reaction demonstrate the challenges that arise when trying to develop and apply clear, consistent standards in the complex and multi-faceted realm of online communication.

Context matters a great deal. Different companies might draw the line in different places, and just because something is offensive or disturbing does not mean it necessarily violates a particular term. And it certainly does not make it illegal.

Because of this complexity, systems for assessing content require constant refinement to ensure that free expression is protected.

Advocates, too, must remain vigilant that the private players that provide so much public value online are meeting their responsibilities to users.

Is it complicated and prone to mistakes and close calls? Yes, but the alternative - mandated content policies and individual governments vying for control over the global internet - is untenable and fraught with risk for free expression.

Dr Lynne Jordan, British Psychological Society

Start Quote

Lynne Jordan

People, whether young or old, can be negatively affected by witnessing violence”

End Quote

The main concern, as an experienced psychologist, in working with the effects of actual and vicarious violence is a lack of awareness of violation of choice.

Material is posted on news feeds and "liked" indiscriminately without thought as to the rights of under-aged youngsters and others who may view it.

People, whether young or old, can be negatively affected by witnessing violence either on screen or in reality.

Effects include trauma responses such as replaying the images, feeling scared and vulnerable, ashamed, invaded or violated and confused, as well as angry and helpless, which is reinforced via the news feed as these things pop up uninvited.

Ethical codes are there for safety and to preserve the right to choose what is viewed when users are considered of age or able to understand the implications. Social media sites are mostly not obliged to adhere to such codes which creates a problem, particularly if they issue their own vague inadequate guidelines.

Social networks' news feeds allow material to arrive on people's pages that might never be sought by choice.

Dr Lynne Jordan

  • A chartered psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society
  • Has worked as a therapist for nearly 30 years focusing on problems caused by trauma

Extensive "friendship lists" develop with people who may not be actual friends but through casual contact get "befriended", perhaps out of obligation or a need to fit in, be liked etc.

The material is often posted supposedly to prevent the spread of violent crime or other violations, but in fact it can inadvertently escalate it by sidestepping the consent of the people accessing the feeds.

This is reminiscent of the "ban smoking in public places" debate with the concern of whose rights we are protecting.

In that debate it was largely about public physical health. This debate concerns public mental health and wellbeing.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    @41 "Where is the respect to the victim and their families?"

    Yes, let's respect then by censoring their death and pretend it never happened. We can then safely say, we learnt nothing, they died for nothing and the world is a lovely place, full of fluffy bunnies and kittens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    The answer for Facebook is surely the one we have for spam. Independent companies like Spamhaus maintain blacklists to which people can subscribe. Or similarly to NetNanny and co.

    Facebook would have to allow for posts to be filtered by a chosen blacklist, then allow anyone to register to provide blacklists. Default to no blacklist. Sorted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Every single one of us, whether individuals or corporations, has a social and moral responsibility. Each and every circumstance is different and should be approached upon its own merits and potential detrimental effect. Each and every one of us is responsible for this judgement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    From 52. spam spam spam spam:
    "At the end of the day, NO-ONE forces anyone to view video clips."

    Very naive, even blinkered view! A lot of web sites, blogs, etc, pack pages full of autoloading video. It often renders a browser useless, unresponsive to any user control while forcing playback. Anyone who spends any time on the web knows that. Web coders should be writing better and safer code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Yes, you have the right to say anything you like. However, if you want to use my website to say it, then I reserve the right to veto and censor anything you say. If you don't approve of this, go somewhere else or set up your own site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Freedom of speech, that's just hiding from the truth, if you want to see beheadings, you are sick and should seek help.

    Facebook shouldn't allow this material, clearly they cannot put it in an area where children can't reach it, they can't even stop millions of fake accounts, I have no faith they could put sufficient controls in place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    ..and while they're on, can FB also remove all the spam adverts I've been getting lately... seems I can't opt out of that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Judicious balance is at the heart of the matter. Ethical codes should be followed to the letter. Having said that the pros and cons should be outlined as clearly as possible. Social media should follow ethical guidelines: any breach should be exposed without fail. There needs to be an ethical standards committee regulating on what can, cannot appear on facebook. Obscenity should certainly be out.

  • Comment number 57.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I can't understand how people like Jeremie can appear so nonchalent about this kind of thing. I've never seen the film and don't even want to investigate it, but presumably the victim has a family and friends, and we have some responsibility that the film doesn't continue to circulate, and forever haunt them. No society has complete freedom of speech or action- it wouldn't be a society if it did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Nobody is bound by Facebook. It isn't compulsory. Therefore, if you want to see graphic videos, take a scout about the internet. Or go out and make your own. If you don't want to see or make graphic videos, don't. Children being exposed to them? I'm more concerned that children are exposed to Facebook in the first place. Lets be honest, Facebook is a bit cr*p.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    These aren't black and white issues; the internet is the ultimate grey area. In an ideal world we would have totally free expression and a flawless system to prevent youngsters from accessing inappropriate material.
    Sadly we have the "totally free expression" bit, but not the safeguards. Parenting is the only form of policing, and unfortunately most parents either don't care or are idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Appropriate self-censorship is one hallmark of a responsible and civilised individual or organisation. The merest glance at many internet blogs & other sites demonstrates its regrettable present-day absence. All credit to FB for moving in the right direction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Hear we go.

    If you want all this health & safety protection stuff then you need to PAY FOR IT, it has a cost, but ask FB users & they want to pay for nothing.

    At the end of the day, NO-ONE forces anyone to view video clips.

    If one chooses to be "offended" by choosing to click on & watch what horrible things humans can do to one another & other species then thats your personal choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I personally think the internet should not be censored, but individual sites should be allowed to lay their own rules. If fakebook for instance, want to restrict certain images, ideas then its up to them, but they should also be open to challenges. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, but with that also comes personal responsibility, and consequences.


  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Please stop believing the tabloid press....

    The number of "bad people" (sex offenders, rapists, convicted criminals) on Facebook compared to the number of users registered on the site is around 0.002% (I worked this out based on the official stats last year) when someone just like you made a similar crazy statement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    People are facing violence all over the media, the thing we can do is a strong education in early years, this is the only way to protect our children. They HAVE TO KNOW the effect of violent images, films, videos have on our mind, no matter the age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Censorship is a dangerous thing. If you start, where do you stop, and who defines what is offensive. Some political views can be deemed offensive. I for one would not want any company deciding what I should or should not be exposed to. That would give them overwhelming power over public opinion. Parents should be given better tools to control their childrens' content until they are 18.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Not strictly related to this, but I think there should be a filter system on Facebook.

    Each image and video uploaded can be "tagged" by viewers, describing what it is. Say for example I (or my parent/guardian) don't want to videos of animal abuse I can say "Don't show me videos that people have 'tagged' as showing animal cruelty" and Facebook will filter out images with that tag for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Let's set aside the idea of hiding behind Facebook as a company. People working at Facebook didn't actually find this offensive?

    What sort of people are they employing....


Page 27 of 30


More Technology stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.