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Facebook's Dilemma: Bloody Violence and the Idea of Community

A video of a beheading has been expunged from Facebook. Again. Now unlikely to return after an embarrassing spate of indecision, the footage's banishment seems to encapsulate the troubled relationship human communities have historically had with depictions of graphic violence.

In short, we don't like it. Facebook, for a moment, attempted to defend the short-lived return of the video to its pages by playing what it thought would be a trump card: it was for the good of the community. People were engaging with a piece of shocking media in order to understand the terrible truth about violence and also to condemn it.

But as Liat Clark shrewdly comments in her assessment of the situation for, it's at this very point that Facebook's logic gets awkwardly tangled: "So Facebook is allowing beheadings and such like so we can all universally agree, murder is wrong. Doesn't really seem all that necessary, does it?"

Clark goes on to note that the same moral stance doesn't seem to apply to hardcore violent pornography. Facebook doesn't let us post that kind of thing so we can all gather round and agree that it's not OK.

In either case, the potential for moralistic, community led consumption of such media is far too easily hijacked. One only needs a small handful of trolls wishing to spread the same images in an aggressive, intentionally upsetting way for the availability of those images, previously defended by Facebook Inc., to become an ineluctable problem.

"People displayed an instinctive and powerful urge to reject the presence of violent imagery, making Facebook's effort of justification futile"

In the end, outcry was just too big and too public. And that in itself is fascinating. People on Facebook, within charitable organisations and around the media all jumped on the opportunity to say "this is a disgrace!" We, as a society, displayed an instinctive and powerful urge to reject the presence of violent imagery, making Facebook's effort of justification utterly futile.

The bandwagon-ometer may have gone off the charts here, but regardless, communal condemnation of this content is an interesting problem in the internet age since users can freely and easily access the most graphic and violent pictures and videos imaginable - if they so desire. And yet, because plenty of people do not so desire is something which still has a direct influence on the character and policies of Facebook, a mainstream online social network.

Let's look at that mainstream visceral dislike of violence a little more closely. Initially it might seem that the public, in general, isn't fond of blood and gore. Last year figures from Ofcom showed that more than a third of TV viewers (35%) thought there was too much violence on their screens, though only a quarter said the same for sexual content.

But those numbers represent trends that are dropping across the board. This old article from twenty years ago on attitudes to televised violence in Australia quoted a figure of 60% who felt there was "too much violence on television."

The article also helps to explain why today's outcry still went nuclear even though people don't like to be told they can't have something: "The majority of people (84%) want more controls on the amount of violence on television. However, the freedom to watch whatever they like remains a strongly held belief. This apparent paradox stems from concerns being related to amount of violence on television perceived to be viewed by others in the community, particularly children."

The reason Facebook ended up not being able to support their decision that the beheading video should be allowed on their site was not so much because people were individually and personally offended by the content, though that certainly did occur, but rather because the presence of the video threatened the ideal of a supposedly holistic community and the sanctity which members of the public feel exists there.

And all that, "won't somebody think of the children!" hysteria, which is widely satirised, is at least in principle backed up by some scientific evidence. Evidence which suggests that simply viewing violent imagery could be psychologically damaging to young people:

"Among an estimated 10.5% (75,000) of students suffering from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder six months after 9/11, including children who were not directly affected by the event, the prevalence of stress was higher among children who spent more time learning about the attacks from TV than children who spent less time." (Source: National Center for Children Exposed to Violence)

Personally, I'm highly sceptical of research which suggests that violent media begets violent actions in a cause-and-effect sort of way. However, I'm very receptive to the notion that some kinds of imagery just may not be suitable for some kinds of people. Especially when those people make that decision themselves or demonstrate symptoms of stress or trauma.

All the free speechers who vigorously argue against censorship of any kind frequently fail to consider that, collectively, people have already agreed that they want some kinds of censorship. It's not always top-down oppression that imposes it, though the line between the two is often irresponsibly blurred.

Consider the following paragraphs which refer to Fox News' botched handling of carjacking coverage which ended in a suicide being broadcast live on air in September last year:

"The network said nothing about possible disciplinary action over the morbid miscue, which became an instant YouTube and Twitter sensation.

"But a Fox News source said the Studio B control room was in 'utter shock' after the suicide - a sentiment likely shared by its 1.8 million afternoon viewers, who witnessed the death from their couches."

Unexpectedly being exposed to violence and death in our living rooms? That breaks a rule of TV broadcasting which is based in turn on unwritten rules of what ought to be seen and shared in a family living room. What you watch later on your PC might well be a different story.

Facebook found itself trying to be in both places at once. Not only does this jar with the company's policies on other kinds of extreme content, as noted above, it meant that Facebook was forced to claim that it was still, really, performing a living room kind of function. It was for the betterment of all people watching!

"A denuding of moral codes had gone on, right on their most trusted social network"

But people who were watching instinctively felt otherwise. They felt that the sanctity of a family friendly space had been disrupted. A denuding of moral codes had gone on, right on their most trusted social network. Indeed, it was enacted by that network.

Facebook had to back down. That they didn't realise this until it was blatantly obvious to everyone else says a lot about how the collapse of contexts here has muddied the waters of what we will tolerate in one place, on or offline, compared to another. Some online spaces are not deemed appropriate arenas for some kinds of content and the reasons for that are manifold. It's a way in which the complex hierarchies in society which allow or disallow access to certain media still gets mapped onto the digital. The digital is not immune to that.

Like the setting of the 9pm watershed on British television, these boundaries may seem arbitrary, even archaic, but society evolved such controls to protect itself from perceived harm. Once accustomed to them, society will flinch noticeably whenever someone suggests that protection be removed.

To put it another way, just because everything is available somewhere on the internet doesn't mean we're OK with it being available everywhere. Facebook is one such no-go zone - apparently that's what people have decided.

And Facebook, eventually, realised that it couldn't argue back.


Photo: "1950s - MODERN ADDICTION" by Clapagare. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Family_watching_television_1958" by ralphbijker. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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