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

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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

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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)

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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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Nobody has the "right" to watch this material for pleasure any more than they have the "right" to watch child pornography.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Facebook is social media designed for 13+ and should be moderated as such. Either make it for 18+ with no restrictions, or moderate. I know there is a balance between freedom and protection, but this needs to take into account the target audience. 13-year-olds are not old enough to always take sensible decisions about what to block.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    So instead of encouraging people to campaign or work towards stopping violent behaviour, we're just going to throw a blanket over it and pretend it's not out there?

    Better start banning the news then, lots of violence on there.

  • Comment number 102.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    @72 "Facebook should ban unsuitable videos and posts"

    I think middle aged women drooling over that ugly vampire guy (Pattinson) from Twilight is unsuitable, inappropriate and offensive, in fact I find it more sickening than video's of people being beheaded or kittens being stamped on, so should Facebook ban that too? (please say yes)

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    The hypocracy of Facebook is that they censor videos of breastfeeding, for instance, on "grounds of decency" whilst saying beheadings are acceptable.

    They also openly allow illegal file-sharing to operate, claiming that there is nothing wrong with it, refusing to shut down the groups, saying they aren't illegal.

    Their customer service staff, meanwhile, are clueless to the point of parody.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    People are acting like you're being forced to view these videos? Do you even know how FB works? Someone you choose to 'friend' will have to post this & then you will have to choose to view it. If you don't wish to view this you don't have to. If you're worried about your kids seeing this why are you giving them the tools to view in the first place?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    At the end of the day, freedom of speech comes with certain moral responsibilities to family, society and to other citizens. Selfishness has to be discouraged. One has got to realize the impact of one's actions especially on young, impressionable minds. Freedom of expression is a great concept which comes with moral responsibilities. The wonderful fabric of society depends on wise discretion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    It is much the same as the pornography "dilemma". Banning al distasteful, perverting an corrupting videos won't work because of the demand for such stuff. The suggested solution of requiring all sad people who want it watch it to subscribe, was met with hostility but should still be installed. People who see no harm in it shouldn worry about being identified or registered on a database.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    This is the image I have in my head

    "Ooo,whats this, 'video clip of people being decapitated'. I hope this isn't offensive, I'd better watch it just in case. OH NO! WHAT?!! OH GOD NO!"

    "Damn you Facebook, you made me watch that! This should be banned. I'm going to write to my MP about this. We need more internet censorship because I have no self control"

    No wonder they think we're plebs

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Either they are a delivery platform that doesn't censor, or they take responsibility for what's shown. Since they do already restrict content, for example what they consider pornography (in a fairly narrow-minded US centric interpretation; look for discussions on breastfeeding), they clearly are taking the second route and obviously accept responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Let’s be honest. Facebook are the same as any other Multi Billion Dollar corporation and the myth that it is good, lovely and cuddly utter is rubbish. Facebook will show what it wants from whoever is giving it the most money. If people put all there information on Facebook and like every suggested group then they will get stuff they don't want on their news feed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Not watched it or seen it. I dont need to watch something like that to know how abhorant it is & even if I did watch it I would not then behave like some moron & start complaining about something I personally chose to view.

    I wouldnt eat dog poo sandwiches, but it seems some would just so they could make iussue with them & how discusting they were.

    Once a moron, always a moron

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.


    It's my feed! I can curate it by ignoring/blocking posts from users as well as telling my "friends" that I don't like the stuff they're posting. Oh and I can also not click the link if I think it looks offensive.

    I think many of the people requesting censorship are making a knee-jerk reaction without thinking it though. Facebook IS the internet for many young people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Facebook routinely removes photos of mothers breastfeeding so to not remove videos of beheadings reveals a extremely warped view of the world on their part.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Facebook should be under the same restrictions on content as the rest of the media. If a newspaper printed such a graphic picture in their pages, or if the BBC News at 6 broadcast one of the videos in full, they would quite rightly be reprimanded. Leaving it up to "our own choice" whether to watch it or not is ludicrous when you've got very young teenagers having the same access as adults.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I find it rather disturbing that the fury is over these videos on Facebook, rather than what the videos show is happening in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    What exactly is the arguement FOR having a graphic video of a beheading freely available on Facebook?

    You don't need to see it to believe it occured, or to know it is barbaric criminal and cruel. The posting of the video can only surely act as a threat to others involved/concerned or to terrify/taunt.

    Or am I missing some positive benefit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    There is something sickening, pompous and disgusting about the argument that removing any such postings somehow infringes human rights, free expression etc. The rights of any person being decapitated, brutalised etc must come first & completely overule self interested voices proclaiminng their rights for self expression. Was she asked if she wanted the world to watch her beheading!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    53 Minutes ago
    I know, let's censor the holocaust too........

    There is a big difference between showing beheadings on facebook for morbid entertainment and allowing people to beware of the horrors of the holocaust.
    Considering they will not show any thing with low level sexual content
    makes this absurd, these victims of beheadings have friends and family think of them.


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