Skip to main content

Facebook: Why beheadings ... and not breasts?

By Shaun Hides, Special for CNN
October 23, 2013 -- Updated 0943 GMT (1743 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook has lifted a ban imposed in May on the uploading and sharing of violent videos
  • But the social media site's rules means images of breastfeeding mothers may be removed
  • Facebook is trying to generate traffic from a narrow image of the world, Shaun Hides says
  • If the site wanted public debate, it would have opened discussion of the change, he says

Editor's note: Shaun Hides is head of the Department of Media at Coventry University and established its "Open Media" approach.

(CNN) -- Facebook's decision to allow the uploading and sharing of extreme/graphic content -- including beheadings -- makes no sense in a conventional media setting.

Most western media outlets operate under regulatory codes that make the screening or publishing of such material unthinkable -- not least because their audience might include children.

Shaun Hides
Shaun Hides

Inevitably the "protection of children" argument will be rehearsed in response to Facebook's decision, which seems almost designed to court negative commentary.

Read more: Facebook lifts ban on beheading videos

The decision will also naturally re-open the usual -- somewhat tired -- debates about the (im)possibility of regulating internet content. Internet content is of course regulated and controlled but not very effectively so.

The decision may also offer the genuinely weird and definitively 21st century prospect of UK and U.S. security services using Facebook to track global viewing patterns of beheading videos.

Read more: NSA mines Facebook for connections

More seriously perhaps, we all need to question what it means that so pivotal a social media platform is re-defining social precedents and norms -- with little external reference.

Horrific video shows beheading in Syria
Man says on Facebook that he killed wife
Social media fights back against trolls
Zuckerberg aims to put the world online

What should Facebook users take from the site's decision that it is OK to screen and view the brutal beheading of a woman in Mexico -- provided that the commentary clearly doesn't glorify the act and that any unsuitable comments are moderated/blocked?

Is it only that brutal violence is part of life and we have the right to make the obvious comments about that fact. As Facebook's statement says:

"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.

"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."

Apart from an increased volume of utterly banal denunciations of the act (only the "right" kinds of statements will be allowed) what could the screening of such events lead to?

People who feel that violence is wrong will say so, people who make risqué or bad-taste jokes will make them, and so the chatter will go on.

In 2003, the U.S. military clamped-down on active service personnel's trading of explicit smart-phone images of the aftermath of suicide bombings in Iraq.

So, the potential cultural power of such images can be recognised by liberals, conservatives, and bodies such as the Family Online Safety Institute alike -- even if they fundamentally disagree about what that power is.

Equally, it's not safe to accept the treatment of such footage as a set of taboo "magic objects," which can never be seen because they are inherently so dangerous in their ability to corrupt the majority and the minors.

Such anxieties are frequently directed at unspecified (ie: less educated than "us" -- less middle-class) mass audiences and are another means of closing down challenge or debate.

What is at stake here does seem to be a realignment of sadly well-known patterns. These are simply thrown into sharp relief by the specifics of the examples that are being spoken about today.

Facebook kills search privacy setting

'Laughably inconsistent'

Facebook sees it as a legitimate service to allow its audience to see a woman being brutally killed and then host discussion of that content, but will not allow its users to see exposed breasts -- for fear of causing offense.

Is it possible for Facebook to argue that there is nothing to debate in the representation of women's bodies? Or that they are not part of people's experience?

Mentions of beheading on Facebook  Mentions of beheading on Facebook
Mentions of beheading on FacebookMentions of beheading on Facebook

This is -- at best -- laughably inconsistent.

One of the primary reasons for carrying out beheadings in public or for perpetrators to video a violent act is to send the clear message to its audience: this is what our "law" or "power", or violence can do to you.

So, the re-showing of such footage on Facebook is actively collusive with those actions. It disseminates the fear and intimidation intended in the act.

Asserting that Facebook users can respond to footage of a woman's brutal murder by decrying it, sidesteps that issue. Users could just as well decry violence against women without seeing this act. But fewer of them may do so.

If Facebook really was interested in public debate, it would have established a real and carefully constructed, open forum in which this decision could be debated -- as well as other issues about its policies, operation and inconsistent stances.

What Facebook is interested in, is generating more traffic through its platform and it is doing so from within a pretty inconsistent, narrowly male and conservative image of the world and of what should be discussed within it.

How different is that from many traditional media organizations of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Read more: Twitter cracks down on abusive tweets

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shaun Hides.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT