Off With Their Heads! Graphic Content On Facebook Is Judged By A Disturbingly Uneven System


I've never seen a video of someone being decapitated. I don't think I could handle it, frankly. Whatever morbid curiosity I possess, there are limits to the lengths I'll go to satisfy it. But if your curiosity was harder to tame and you wanted to watch such a video, then you probably won't have to look very far. A few days ago, Facebook lifted a six month old ban on decapitation videos (the ban originated over a user-posted video that showed a Mexican woman beheaded for committing adultery). Facebook now allows users to share graphic videos of decapitations because, according to a Facebook rep:

When people share this type of graphic content, it is often to condemn it. If it is being shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate violence, Facebook removes it.

Condemnation or not, Facebook backpedaled today and removed the video that started the whole mess after a public outcry that included Facebook users and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Facebook insists, however, that it didn't change any of its policies, nor will it inherently prevent other violent videos from being posted in the future. Each video will be reviewed on a case by case basis. Turns out that public pressure was a good tool to use in this case because there really are no legal mechanisms that prevent Facebook from allowing users full reign to post whatever content they want. Here's why...

1. Facebook doesn't owe a contractual duty to protect its users from any kind of harm. In fact, Facebook states pretty clearly in its terms and policies that it does not

control or direct users' actions on Facebook and are not responsible for the content or information users transmit or share on Facebook. We are not responsible for any offensive, inappropriate, obscene, unlawful or otherwise objectionable content or information you may encounter on Facebook. We are not responsible for the conduct, whether online or offline, or any user of Facebook.

2. Even if Facebook didn't have contractual protection through the above disclaimer, any tort-based lawsuit against the social network would fail because federal law absolves internet service providers like Facebook from legal responsibility when obscene content is posted by their users. The Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was originally passed in 1996 to regulate pornography on the internet, states that

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

It's worth noting that the CDA also prevents users from suing Facebook if Facebook removes content it deems to be obscene or violent. This means that the CDA is a Teflon-coated Kevlar shielded brick wall sprayed in bullet repellant; Facebook is essentially lawsuit-proof.

So if Facebook can't be sued for letting users post the videos, why did it lift the ban after six months only to backtrack when the public freaked out? My guess is that in the absence of litigation, public opinion is all Facebook can rely on to drive its policies. And, until recently, the public has been largely silent on the issue of graphic, violent content. In other words, Facebook assumed that people didn't care about violent content, so it let users upload the videos until the outcry became impossible to ignore.

But this raises a question that I actually find more interesting. Why has Facebook's handling of violent content been so much less even than its handling of sexual content? (For those who don't know, Facebook has a blanket policy to remove all nude media from user accounts, including breastfeeding pictures.) Call me crazy, but I have a hard time understanding why a photo of a mother breastfeeding her child, even when her breast is fully exposed, is more offensive than a video showing some poor fellow having his head sawed off, even when the reason for posting that video is to criticize and condemn the act. And it's not like the public has been silent on this issue either. When I googled "Facebook bans nude pictures," I got 38 million results.

I personally don't have a problem with Facebook censoring any user content (the First Amendment, remember, only applies to government censorship... Facebook as a private party can censor as much as it wants), but I'd like for its censorship policies to at least have some semblance of uniformity, especially if it won't explain why a photo of a boob is somehow more onerous than a severed head, or why decapitation videos get individual reviews by the Facebook team, while nude pictures get a ban hammer. I hope that we can convince Facebook that sexual content deserve at least the same type of case-by-case scrutiny that it gives to decapitation porn. If not, I fear the puritanical society we may one day become.

Protecting The Brand: Beyonce Knowles vs. The First Amendment

Remember when Beyoncé performed during the Super Bowl halftime show and this hilarious meme-birthing picture was taken?

Superbowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers  - Mercedes-Benz Superdome

And then she flipped out and tried to have it scrubbed from the entire internet?  Well, three months later and Queen Bey is back at it.  She's currently on her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour and she completely banned outside photographers, while releasing only pre-approved flattering pics to various news outlets.  Beyoncé's goal  is to have total control over her image, so instead of newspapers and websites running photos of her looking like She Hulk, she'll instead look like this:


Reasonable minds can argue whether the kind of control she's attempting is even possible in the internet age (hint: it isn't).  But I'm more curious about the effect that this kind of totalitarianism will have on her brand.  The conventional wisdom is that Beyoncé isn't doing herself any favors by limiting press access to her and having relentless control over the pressers that do get access.  On the face of it, it makes her seem out of touch with reality.  But is that harmful to her brand?  I'm not so sure. The people who love Beyoncé are already convinced of her beauty, talent, and semi-royal status and are willing to write off the unflattering pics as aberrations.  And the people who don't love her?  Well they certainly won't be convinced by these autocratic methods, but I don't think she's trying to win them over anyway. Beyoncé knows herself and her audience, and as long as they keep her rich and famous, that's probably enough.

I've seen it argued that Beyoncé's grasp on her self-awareness is tenuous at best if she thinks she can control her image to this degree, but I would argue that she's read the situation better than we giver her credit for.  After all, she hasn't sued anyone to take down the unflattering pictures (to my knowledge, she only sent polite email requests to various outlets), and that fact tells me that she knows where the line is between egomania and villainy and she's not willing to cross it.

So my guess is that while this probably won't make her MORE popular, her brand is as safe as any celebrity brand can be.  But I say that with one caveat: she should avoid alienating the press, because they're the ones who can bring about her destruction.  If you've seen Beyoncé in interviews - as well as the remarkably self-serving HBO documentary she directed about herself - it's clear that she is a person of extreme self-confidence.  And the confidence she has in her abilities has driven some of the press to turn on her and lose their own grasps on reality.

In particular, the National Press Photographers Association.  They're claiming that the restrictions placed on them by Beyoncé and her management team is preventing them from doing their jobs, and that violates the First Amendment.   No, sorry fellas.  I understand that you're angry at having your access to Beyoncé cut off, but the First Amendment isn't applicable here.  Constitutional Law 101 tells us that the First Amendment only prevents the federal government (and state governments through a process known as incorporation) from restricting your freedoms of speech, press, religion, etc.  It says nothing about whether a person or organization can restrict your First Amendment rights... because they can!  Behold the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As you can see, not a word leading you to believe that individuals (like Beyoncé!) or corporations (like Beyoncé!) can't place restrictions on the press at events.  In fact, all of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights are there to prevent the government from limiting your rights.  But they apply only to the government.  So while Beyoncé's ban on photogs at her concerts may not be the best PR move, there's no legal reason she can't do it.