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 185.

    177. bluest-man

    'Question tolerated in which society by whom?'

    I think you are being a little stupid; but nevertheless I will answer the question.

    What is tolerated here in the UK. Our laws are unique and so our censorship should reflect that.

    I truly believe we are a civilised society and we do not want the internet allowing filth from Mexico or The Middle East poisoning our way of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    If the argument for banning it is a "think of the cheeldren" appeal, then the simple solution is to age restrict the content. We have construction sites set up with more security than many banks because children will break in to go play on a dangerous site. I'm more concerned about these ridiculous "conspiracy theory" sites filling peoples heads with half truths and rubbish than "graphic content"

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    If you don't like something, don't watch it. For a child it is the parents responsibiliy with regards to access on the internet. Facebook is a ludicrous and boring 'society' anyway, I don't use it so could care less what it shows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    164.Little Welsh Dragon
    "I have 3 kids, 2 on FB 1 not,because she is 8 and not appropriate.
    other 2 are 15 and 16 and have been educated about the dangers and are monitored on useage."

    Should your children tell you, in later life, when they had their first sexual experience, their experimenting with drugs etc. you could be amazed to find that it happened several years before you thought!

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Facebook should show it as it is, no point in looking at the world through rose tinted spectacles##

    So where's the video of the 5 year old shooting his 2 year old sister dead
    or what about hte intimate personal CCTV of the kidnapped girls being held for ten years.(it would last a while)
    The minibus CCTV of the death of the hen party woman.

    I suppose you would love them....

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    @171 "She has had male friends show her hardcore pornography on a school bus trip"

    My own children won't have smartphones or tablets at a stupid age and when they do, they'll be borrowed from me, not their own property and i'll check the contents daily, no need to blame anyone else for my parenting mistakes..

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    What about simply setting a compulsory labelling for every content (e.g. nudity, violence, gore), care of the user publishing it?
    And preventing minors or people who asked for it from seeing the content?
    And only removing disturbing content which was not labelled?
    Too simple for those geniuses at Facebook?

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    "I checked my facebook account only to find a picture of mutilated children from Syria . my young daughters could have seen them"

    Total censorship is not required though. Any uploaded content should have the requirement for an age rating, that people can complain about and get changed. The content does not show for anyone younger than the rating. I'm sure FB could implement this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    @142. Minerve wrote
    "What is not tolerated in society should not be tolerated in FB."

    Question tolerated in which society by whom? For example some extreme religious leaders of non secular societies might not "tolerate" a picture of a woman in a swimsuit on a beach .. ...yes your holiday snaps!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    boobs NOT beheadings please

    Facebook think you got this a bit wrong.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    For anyone who has an appetite for this lurid and macabre material, may I suggest Hollyoaks on Channel 4. That should satisfy even the most depraved urges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    "Protecting children on the net is a responsibility of their parents in the first place. It cannot be outsourced to Facebook." Jeremie Zimmermann's piuous statement means that parents have a responsibility to trawl through Facebook to determine what is and is not suitable for their children? This man obviously doesn't live in the real world of very busy parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    There's a deep hypocrisy here because anything with a graphical sexual content is removed by Facebook and has been for years. If you are going to take a moral stand on something then be consistent. Gratuitous and graphic videos of violence are far more psychologically and emotionally injurious than a nice bit of human flesh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    last night I checked my facebook account only to find a picture of mutilated children from Syria . my young daughters could have seen them as they like to play the games . censorship of a media that can be viewed by all ages is a must .

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    164. Little Welsh Dragon

    Actually I am a very responsible parent. I cannot watch my 15 year old daughter all of the time. She has had male friends show her hardcore pornography on a school bus trip. As much as we can be good parents, schools, government and society in general need to support us or it is a waste of time.

    'Educate about the dangers' - don't make me laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    154.BMT-An Alternative View
    Never ceases to amaze me why people are drawn to sites like FB and twitter. Pure brain numbing dross.
    For one, to get away from people like you, with nothing creative, constructive of positive to contribute to anything. Not even on HYS. Which is justy another variant of FB and Twitter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    It's simply not acceptable for us to put our heads in the sand and ignore this stuff. If people cannot see it they will not care about it. If people don't care then those in power certainly will not.

    It's about protecting innocents - a goal I thought we instilled in our armed forces.

    Instead we're talking about how to keep this stuff from being seen rather than how to stop it happening

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    What makes me laugh about this, is the fact that if we had the attitudes of 50 years ago, this discussion would be about the use of swear words or nudity on TV, with the same people strongly supporting/opposing censorship. The Embarrssing bodies team would be hung/drawn/quartered and Prince Harry would have been locked up in a lunatic asylum for playing pool naked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    "a range of experts offer contrasting views of what it should do."
    Well, it's nice to know that not all of the non-jobs are created by thhe Government: looks like private enterprise can do it too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Do all the people on here saying ban this content or that content, actually realize what a social network is?

    If you don't like what you see, then you can hide it from your timeline and news-feed.

    If you are complaining because you let your young children use Facebook and don't think they should see the content, then you should be banned from having children. Be a parent not a numb-skull!


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