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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT