Which is more objectionable to a normal Facebook user -- a human beheading or a bare female breast?
According to the social network’s latest policy decision, it is the latter.
On Monday, Facebook reversed a decision it had taken to ban a video which shows a live woman being beheaded by a Mexican drug gang. The video, which can be ‘liked’, is nauseating.
But at the same time, the social network reiterated its view that images of exposed female breasts -- including those of nursing mothers -- are unacceptable and will be immediately removed.
It’s difficult to reconcile this odd position. Yesterday, Facebook gave it a shot.
“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 for the company.
“People share videos of these events on Facebook to condemn them. If they were being celebrated, or the actions in them encouraged, our approach would be different.”
In other words, Facebook believes that it has become more than just a place to post pet photos and send direct messages to gossipy pals. It is, the company believes, metamorphosing into a universal utility, a global forum where a fifth of the world’s population meet to talk. As such, the company believes that its newfound role must also bear witness to pain and suffering as well as joy and frivolity.
Facebook has clearly crossed a line in allowing such a depraved act to be broadcast, shared and ‘liked’ on its network. It is right in regarding itself as a global utility. But when it talks about balancing the cultural preferences of its 1.15bn users, it cannot forget just how many of them are teenagers. The route it is pursuing is the route of aborted foetus videos.
To be clear, there is some integrity in Facebook’s aspiration to have a social conscience. For example, it is not unreasonable for it to argue that worthy causes sometimes need to push taste boundaries to raise awareness. Animal abuse imagery was offered as an example. So was the sharing of very graphic imagery from the Boston Marathon bombing. Photographers have won awards for depicting graphic atrocities, the company’s spokespeople argued.
Fine. But the nobility of this position starts to fade quickly when the company admits, in the very next breath, that it will do all it can to quickly remove images of nursing mothers’ breasts. These are hardly the principles of Pulitzer.
Besides, Facebook knows that if it did start allowing photos of breasts -- even nursing mothers’ breasts -- that large sections of its (especially US) user base would revolt. So when the company argues freedom of speech, it’s only after the sums have been done first.
It is unlikely that many people will ditch Facebook because of this video. But the least that the company could do would be to warn people, a point it seemed to acknowledge yesterday.
“Since some people object to graphic video of this nature, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see,” said a company spokeswoman. “This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content.”
There will always be edge-cases in testing decency and taste. And it does not always follow that Facebook should necessarily have the same rules as Radio Teilifis Eireann, the BBC or The Irish Independent.
But it is still possible to discern a line of what’s acceptable and what’s not. And what Facebook has decided is not acceptable.