ABOUT six months ago Facebook decided to remove graphic images of beheadings from its pages. The decision was in response to complaints from those concerned with safety issues.
This decision followed the image of the beheading of a woman in (probably) Mexico. At the time Facebook said it would review its policy on other distressing material also.
Facebook has now reversed its decision claiming that such images of violence raise awareness of atrocities. It says that it also wishes to preserve peoples' right to publicise, describe or depict such occurrences.
Facebook says it will not publish anything that is promotional, titillating or supportive of these actions. It is considering issuing alerts that violent material is about to appear.
The reappearance of a beheading in recent days has reignited the old controversy with a number of organisations expressing alarm at the network's change in position regarding the publication of this material.
Childnet International and the Family Online Safety Institute are both members of Facebook's Safety Advisory Board. Both have expressed serious concerns about this development, since this public forum is accessible to anybody over the age of 13.
If graphically violent material is now readily available, what about other material? It could be argued, as Facebook has done, that this material highlights the terrible deeds that are happening across the world.
But what about showing graphic images of children being sexually abused, women being raped or animals being tortured? These are evils that we should know about, but should we actually see them and have them transmitted to us with relative ease?
Some of us in our work hear about such actions regularly. The police have to review violent and distressing footage and these streetwise men and women find it disturbing.
I recently had occasion to have to view graphic images as part of my work and it was deeply distasteful and disturbing. I could not view it for more than a moment or two. Because I truncated the viewing I managed to avoid any longer-term effects.
However, more frequent and lengthy viewing could undoubtedly trigger various mental health disorders, and there is evidence that those exposed to graphic material, similar to what Facebook is now resuming, do succumb to such conditions.
Assuming that the negative effect applies only to children is wide of the mark, although they are clearly the most vulnerable.
Northern Ireland psychiatrist Arthur Cassidy who runs the Yellow Ribbon campaign says: "It only takes seconds of exposure to such graphic material to leave a permanent trace – particularly in a young person's mind."
Has Facebook considered the part it may play in titillating the imagination of disturbed people? While it clearly disapproves of use these images as promotion, it has absolutely no control over the vicarious imaginations of the wider public.
It is hiding behind the belief that information and societal disapproval will hamper the misuse of these data.
Facebook lives in its own unreal, idealised world. What if there are copycat incidents where people or even animals are tortured simply because a sadistic imagination has been exhilarated by the Facebook images?
Society will have no recourse because Facebook will claim it was encouraging disapproval of the activities.
Where do we draw the line? The images that can be viewed online extend to the far reaches of our fantasy world.
And it is not just our surreal imagination that is being tapped into by the actions of Facebook but also a primitive and atavistic one, where cruelty and hatred reside. The prospect of taboos becoming visible is a reality.
The breaching of codes that were hitherto not contemplated is a new departure in our 21st-Century civilisation. This may desensitise us to cruelty and normalise behaviours generations before us once regarded as out of bounds.
Actions have consequences we never intended and perhaps Facebook has forgotten this in its global arrogance. It has assumed that most of us are stable, caring members of society who can view images we deeply disapprove of while retaining our moral outrage.
Facebook seems to have forgotten that there is a sizeable minority who have a dormant but troubled fantasy life that this material is likely to awaken.
We should be terrified.