Facebook has reversed a ban that it implemented earlier this year forbidding the posting of graphic and gruesome content such as videos of decapitations and other atrocities.
The social media company apparently made this about-face some time ago, but it only became widely noticed when the BBC reported on it this week after being alerted by a reader who said the social network had refused to remove a page with a clip of a masked man killing a woman.
The ban was originally imposed in May following complaints that such material could cause long-term psychological damage.
‘Graphic or Gratuitous Violence’
Now, Facebook appears to be walking a fine line between embracing freedom of speech and avoiding offending wide swaths of its users. Its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities tells users they “will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
Recent comments made by the company to media outlets, however, note that the site is willing to tolerate such content (again) if it is posted to share experiences and otherwise condemn such events.
The social network is also considering putting in place protections for users who don’t want to be offended by the material, such as warnings that the images contain graphic content.
A Facebook spokesperson was not immediately available to provide further details.
‘They Must Explain Their Actions’
Facebook’s decision has drawn widespread criticism, not least from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who decried the move in a tweet.
It is “irresponsible of Facebook to post beheading videos, especially without a warning,” Cameron wrote. “They must explain their actions to worried parents.”
Indeed, “the concept of showing these videos to condemn them seems odd,” Ian Gertler, president and chief marketing officer for Symplegades, told TechNewsWorld. “Should we allow our kids to abuse drugs to understand that they shouldn’t do them? Of course not.”
Facebook’s reasoning is confusing to adults as well, he added: “Facebook prohibits nudity, drug use and pornography, and those restrictions will remain, so the decision leaves me a bit puzzled.”
A Win for the First Amendment
The flip side to the issue is that Facebook could gain some much-needed First Amendment creds, David Johnson, principal of Strategic Vision, told TechNewsWorld.
“There will be some who will object to such graphic material being displayed,” Johnson said. At the same time, though, “it will also appease many who have been criticizing Facebook for its censorship policies, and it allows them to appear to be on the side of free speech.”
Earlier this month Facebook was roundly criticized for temporarily suspending a gay porn star for posting a photo of him kissing his husband. Later, Facebook apologized for the error.
In April, Facebook was again in the firing line for reportedly removing a photo of two men kissing.
In February Facebook deactivated the account of Danish artist Frode Steinicke, who posted a copy of a 19th century oil painting hanging in the Muse d’Orsay in Paris. The painting depicted female nudity and Facebook would only reinstate the account after the painter promised to post only pictures of clothed people, according to media reports.
‘Just a Click Away’
Still, even people who might appreciate Facebook’s nod to free speech are dismayed by the violence of the content — illustrating just how complicated an environment Facebook must navigate.
“Facebook’s decision seems to be based on its belief that responsible users can decide what to watch and what not to watch and Facebook doesn’t intervene on people’s freedom of speech and people’s right to have access to information online,” Sang Nam, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, told TechNewsWorld.
Meanwhile, “these gruesome videos are just a click away,” he added.
“Some might say the Internet has a self-correcting mechanism, and gruesome videos would be removed by concerned users,” Nam continued. “It is true in a sense, but Facebook is risking many vulnerable teens by lifting its ban.”
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