Facebook Struggles with Violent Content Policy

By Tracey Dowdy

Back in May, Facebook announced a ban on images of graphic violence. On Monday, they lifted the ban. Tuesday, it was back in place. Zuckerberg might just as well audition for “Dancing With the Stars,” given all that fancy footwork and backtracking.

Monday’s decision was based on Facebook’s position that violent and graphic content is acceptable within a context condemning such actions and when presented to an age-appropriate audience. Fast forward to Tuesday. Public outcry over potential long term harm resulting from exposure to such images forced Facebook to rethink its position yet again.

“When we review content that is reported to us, we will take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video,” Facebook said in a statement. “Second, we will consider whether the person posting the content is sharing it responsibly, such as accompanying the video or image with a warning and sharing it with an age-appropriate audience.”

At the heart of the issue is Facebook’s attempt to position itself as a valid source of news and current events. With over a billion users world-wide, it is uniquely situated to be a platform for live, as-it-happens news coverage. The challenge then becomes balancing information and exploitation.

“Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses, acts of terrorism, and other violence.” According to Facebook’s guidelines, as long as the context of the video is to condemn rather than glorify or celebrate the actions, the content is acceptable.

Prompting much of the debate was a video posted in April showing the beheading of a woman by a Mexican drug cartel. Facebook users reported the content; however Facebook’s position at the time was that the content did not violate current guidelines so it wasn’t taken down. Public pressure forced them to review the criteria outlined in their Terms of Service and the video was subsequently removed.

Monday’s decision to lift the ban and allow such content prompted yet another backlash from around the world. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke up, condemning Facebook’s position by saying, “It’s irresponsible of Facebook to post beheading videos, especially without a warning.”

To Facebook’s credit, they admitted their position was inconsistent. Content is regularly flagged and removed for nudity or hate speech, and determining how graphic is too graphic is a challenge. The ban was put back in place while they work on improving and finding a better balance.

“Based on these enhanced standards, we have re-examined recent reports of graphic content and have concluded that this content improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence. For this reason, we have removed it,” the company said.

Evaluating controversial content and revamping the Terms of Service will be no easy task. Facebook will have to balance cries of censorship against those of exploitation. Finding that middle ground is going to take more than fancy footwork!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, Ontario. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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