Facebook's Standards Problem

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Is Facebook a social network? Of course, since it connects people with their so-called social graph and makes billions of dollars by doing so. It’s also clearly a media platform, just as Twitter and YouTube and other social networks are, and trying to find a dividing line between what it sees as offensive and what it’s willing to permit has been sending it (and users) in circles lately.

How much free speech is Facebook willing to allow? That seems to depend on what kind of speech it is. Videos of people being beheaded appear to cross a line—although that hasn’t always been the case—but other equally violent imagery continues to circulate freely on the network. Photos of women breast-feeding, however, are routinely removed , as are posts by dissident groups in a number of countries, often without explanation.

The latest controversy arose after a video of someone being beheaded in Mexico was posted repeatedly to multiple accounts. Facebook removed a host of similarly violent videos in May after a wave of criticism from those who said the images could cause emotional harm, particularly to younger users. The social network originally fought the move, arguing that the videos were free speech and part of a valuable effort by users to discuss important political and social issues:

“People are sharing this video on Facebook to condemn it. Just as TV news programs often show upsetting images of atrocities, people can share upsetting videos on Facebook to raise awareness of actions or causes. While this video is shocking, our approach is designed to preserve people’s rights to describe, depict, and comment on the world in which we live.”

It’s interesting to note that Facebook, a proprietary network controlled by Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, compared itself in this statement to a media outlet, justifying its actions with a fundamentally journalistic defense. After much criticism, the company seemed to change its mind and removed the videos, saying it was reviewing its policies on the posting of such content. But on Monday, Facebook said it had reconsidered its ban on beheading videos, and was again allowing them to be shared:

“Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they’re connected to controversial events on the ground, such as human-rights abuses, acts of terrorism, and other violent events,” said a spokeswoman. “If the video were being celebrated, or the actions in it encouraged, our approach would be different.”

Then came the third flip-flop (depending on how you’re counting), when the company said it had determined that many of those accounts who were sharing the beheading video were not doing so to criticize or condemn it, but were doing so in a way that “improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence,” whatever that means. Facebook went on to say that it plans to “take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video” and will remove any content that celebrates violence.

No matter how you slice it, this puts Facebook into the thick of an editorial decision—and not an easy one, either. Now Facebook no longer looks only at content to determine whether to remove a post, but it also considers the context of the sharing, including the language and other behavior of users. That’s a much harder decision, and one that may come back to bite the company, especially given its somewhat contradictory decisions in other cases.

In the case of breast-feeding photos, for example, Facebook has been much more draconian in what it will permit than it has been with beheading videos—or any other violent content for that matter. Why is the image of a breast so much more horrific or offensive than images of people who have died in war or some other event? To my knowledge, no one at Facebook has ever come up with a rational defense of the distinction.

As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has said, all these incidents highlight the somewhat tense relationship that Facebook has with free speech. That relationship affects more and more of the media we consume, thanks to the increasing influence of social sharing and as many media outlets, as well as dissident political groups, adopt Facebook as a platform because of its reach.

York suggests it’s possible that Facebook has been feeling some pressure to be as much of a free-speech proponent as YouTube, which has allowed similar violent videos for some time, or Twitter, which has staked its reputation on being what former general counsel Alex Macgillivray called the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” What seems clear is that Facebook still has a long way to go if it wants to be thought of in the same breath as those other platforms.

Also from GigaOM:

A Field Guide to Web APIs (subscription required)

Five Things Netflix Is Going to Disrupt Next

HP Will Enter 3D Printing Market by Mid 2014

Chromecast Will Get Pandora Support Any Day Now

Companies Managing Student Data Are Coming Under Congressional Scrutiny