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 465.

    Nice to see that some ppl who are commenting on here want us to live in 1984.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    i know a lot of pages on fb which has lots of offensive pictures and dark humor and i just brush it off and ignore it. people complain about it and report it but why cant they just 1 unlike the page and 2 hide the content on their newsfeed so the don't have to see it. In the real world there will always be this sort of stuff everywhere and you cannot unsee what has been seen

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.


    It would be sure to cross the minds of your distressed family in due course.

    If you survived it could make it much more difficult for you to move on. Ask any rape victim whose ordeal was filmed and posted online.

    Whichever way you look at it, such distribution adds to the distress of people going through the worst kind of hell, and is an additional form of victimisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.


    To be honest, if some militant group were in the middle of torturing me, or about to lop my head off, it's publication on the internet probably wouldn't cross my mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    452.Fred Bloggs
    Actually you probably do - at least a few times. Read the stuff on remote working & VC and you'll understand the dynamics, this is even more important in the case of friendship.

    You can sustain some level of previously established friendship remotely, even then it tends to decay over time unless its very long established, but developing it initially is a different matter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    2 Minutes ago

    Ok so let's take this to the extreme to test your logic with one of the most vile or horrific crimes there has ever been. The holocaust. As we all know it's the stuff children's nightmares are made of, shall we not let people know about that either? Just ignore the issues of our humanity and pretend everything is sunshine and lollipops? Get real and grow a backbone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    What amazes me is why on earth anyone would want to watch such brutality and evil .

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Facebook want to defend freedom of expression yet censor photos of breast feeding while allowing videos of violence and cruelty. There's a complete lack of common sense in Facebook's regulations, let alone appropriateness or responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    I am strongly against censorship, however i believe some things need to be censored. Murders posted online like beheadings and things like that go beyond censorship. Its a crime and vile disgusting crimes should be censored!

  • Comment number 456.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    Thats the great problem, FB like all of the Net is cross border & cross cultural & not all cultures are sensitive to the same things.

    People may agree in general that something is abnormal, even deviant, but those practising it are likely to argue that removing it is censorship. Those providing the gateways in a such a world need to take care that you have to opt in not out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    It's not facebook's job to police the people who use it or the videos that they post on the website. If they've decided that they don't want to remove something from their sites, that's their decision and if some people are afraid of their kids seeing it then maybe they should be evaluating why they are letting vunerable or impressionable people on facebook in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    "What about just cutting their ear off, or just a little slice of the arm."

    How about letting the victim decide. You know, give the victim of brutal violence back some sense of control over their life by deciding for themselves whether they want people laughing at footage of their brutalisation on the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    @448.Andy The Thinker

    "Farcebook is for people who dont have real friends. If you did, you wouldn't spend so much time glued to it keeping up with all those so-called 'friends' you have there - they are merely acquaintances really."

    If you were really much of a thinker you might realise that you don't have to meet people face to face to be their friend.

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    So, FB's policy is that portraying a certain level of violence is okay. And yet if I post a photo depicting social nudity, a couple of people relaxing on a nude beach, not harming anyone, FB is all over me like a rash threatening to terminate my account. It makes no sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.


    Ok, so beheading is off limits. What about just cutting their ear off, or just a little slice of the arm. Ok, forget that, what about a dead arm, or accidently tripping into a paddling pool. You've Been Framed are in for it!!

  • Comment number 449.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    Farcebook is for people who dont have real friends. If you did, you wouldn't spend so much time glued to it keeping up with all those so-called 'friends' you have there - they are merely acquaintances really. Others have an address book and remember their friends because they meet them regularly and spend real time with them so they don;t need to post anything anyway!

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    I am so sick of seeing oooh young children can see this on facebook. Children under 13 are not allowed on facebook under FB rules. Even over 13 it is still your responsibility as parents to police there viewing! The rights and wrongs of this particular clip aside please stop abdicating your parental responsibilities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    439.spam spam spam spam
    If you are going to preach at least do it on topic.


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