Skip to main content

Facebook: Why beheadings ... and not breasts?

By Shaun Hides, Special for CNN
updated 5:43 AM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT