22 Oct 2013

Facebook reverses ban on beheading videos #fail

Beheading? Yes. Breastfeeding? No. Facebook is on thin ice by allowing videos of beheading. The problem is that it has become more than just a social network, and is effectively a media organisation.

I once watched a beheading video. It was of a man captured by al-Qaeda in Iraq. My rationale was that I needed to see it. After I watched it I decided I did not need to see it.

Because beheading is a form of execution designed to instil terror not just into the victim but into everybody who watches it. That’s why beheading videos exist online.

Now Facebook has reversed its decision, and will now allow people to post beheading videos – but only as long as the people posting them are doing so to condemn the beheading.

You can’t show breastfeeding on Facebook, or nudity. Porn is out. Rape jokes are out. But beheading is OK as long as you are condemning it.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has just tweeted: “It’s irresponsible of Facebook to post beheading videos, especially without a warning. They must explain their actions to worried parents.”

A shorter version might have been #beheading #fail.

So why has Facebook – the biggest social platform on the internet with over 1 billion users – decided to allow some of the most gruesome imagery in the world onto a site used by people as young as 13?

Ten years ago, if you wanted to see video of someone being beheaded, you would look for self-shot Islamist propaganda videos from Iraq or Afghanistan. Today, much of the beheading content – stills and video – comes from Syria, where the Islamist militias have taken to beheading their opponents and defiling their bodies generally.

But many of those being posted are being put up by “counter-jihadi” groups: far-right groups or supporters of the Assad regime, seeking to show the brutality of their opponents.

Media organisation

Media organisations, of course, can’t and won’t use such footage, even where it serves the purpose of explaining brutality or criminality.

The problem Facebook has is that it’s become half a social network, half the default platform for the internet. It is bigger today than the whole internet was in 2004, when it was launched. It is home not just to overlapping social networks of friends, but also to brands, games and to a multi-billion dollar advertising business. It is, effectively, a media organisation.

Maybe what we need, instead of a knee-jerk attempt to censor Facebook’s content, is to regulate.

Twitter, which tries to maintain the stance that it is “just a platform”, and that people can opt out, or block, is on stronger grounds. Facebook, however, has an editorial policy: it takes down fake accounts and specifies in detail what can and cannot be said.

In its defence, for starters, to see a video you have to press play: that’s not the same as getting bombarded by unwanted rape threats and jokes on Twitter, which are impossible to block. Also in its defence, if somebody sends you the content you can tell them to eff off and de-friend them.

No sex or nudity

But Facebook has put itself on thin ice here: its ridiculous and at times arbitrary imposition of rules on sex and nudity contrast to this decision on beheading. If you are going to provide an edited, regulated and teen-friendly product, and make money out of it, your decisions at least need to be predictable and transparent.

Ultimately the problem lies in the monopoly character of Facebook. In real-world business sectors there are usually four or five big global players: four big accountancy firms, four big high street banks, four or five supermarket groups. But in the online world there is Facebook for networking, Twitter for spurting out your 140-character thoughts, Google for finding things.

Maybe what we need, instead of a knee-jerk attempt to censor Facebook’s content, is to regulate – as the USA did in the Progressive Era – to promote competition in the provision of social networking platforms.

For the record, the danger of seeing the odd beheading video will not force me off Facebook. There was a time when the prevalence of Twitter trolling made me think seriously about leaving that.

But I think if there is one thing I want to share with the world today it is this: don’t watch beheading videos, unless you are a judge or jury member in a criminal case. There are no circumstances in which it will enhance your life.