When Facebook Decides To Silently Delete Journalism

from the down-the-memory-hole dept

There’s been an awful lot of discussion about the role of Facebook on journalism these days. I’m actually a lot less concerned than many who have been complaining that Facebook’s growing importance is somehow “dangerous” for the future of news. The simple fact is that a huge percentage of people (especially young people) currently get their news via Facebook. But, at the very least, we should be concerned when Facebook starts to play the role of the arbitrary editor, simply deleting stories it doesn’t like.

Jim MacMillan, a photojournalist who is currently the Assistant Director for the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University happened upon a somewhat tragic scene last month, of a 68-year-old woman struck and killed by one of those “Duck Boats” (the rickety half bus/half boat things that are — for reasons I still don’t get — popular with tourists). The story made headlines in part because of claims that the woman was too focused on her mobile device to notice that she was walking in the road against the traffic light.

MacMillan just happened to be there, and while he notes that he’s been out of the “breaking news” photojournalism business for years, he recognized an opportunity and snapped a few photographs and posted them to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter:

The reason that I only linked to the Twitter version is because the other ones are gone. According to MacMillan, Facebook silently deleted the other two with no explanation:

I posted the photo to my Instagram account and clicked the button to share to Facebook. But while discussing the incident with a colleague last night, I scrolled back and discovered that both posts had been deleted.

MacMillan notes that he was careful to post a photo that did not show the actual body, but rather the police putting up the tarp:

In the most recent incident, I saw the victim?s body between the right, rear wheels and it was clear that she was dead, but I posted a more sensitive picture of police on the other side of the vehicle and captioned it only to say: ?Police hang a tarp after a person was caught under ?#?RideTheDucks? boat at 11th and Arch just now. Looks very serious.?

We do things like this to eliminate the possibility that loved ones will learn of the death from anyone but official sources and to spare viewers the traumatic effects of graphic imagery whenever possible. In other words, I was operating conservatively within standard practices of photojournalism.

That was my best effort to be sensitive to the victim while responsible to the public’s right to know that there had been another fatal accident involving a Ride the Ducks boat.

As MacMillan notes, it’s particularly ridiculous that Facebook didn’t even inform him of this or give him any chance to respond or protest the silent deletion of his journalistic work:

But why would Facebook take down this image? Who might have complained? And shouldn?t I have been offered the opportunity to respond?

In an update, MacMillan notes that people from Facebook are claiming they have no record of a takedown at all — leading MacMillan to wonder if he really posted them at all if some sort of technical glitch may be to blame. Yet, he also notes that the way it got onto Twitter was because he has an IFTTT recipe that reposts all his Instagram/Facebook posts to Twitter. The fact that the image is on Twitter certainly suggests he did, in fact, post them to Facebook. Either way, there are legitimate concerns about how Facebook’s policy works in terms of taking down stories. The company has certainly had problems in the past, and this is going to be a concern going forward. You’re relying on someone else’s platform, and they can do what they want with it.

While I’m less worried than many others about Facebook’s impact on journalism, it does seem like the company really ought to very, very clear and transparenty how it handles taking down content. Many other sites make sure that they, at the very least, inform users of any takedowns and even provide clear processes for challenging the decision. Here, assuming MacMillan is correct, the content was just removed. If the content really was just removed, it should call into question the credibility of journalism found on Facebook.

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Comments on “When Facebook Decides To Silently Delete Journalism”

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Anonymous Coward says:


By far the simplest explanation is a glitch in the posting. That he uses IFTTT to syndicate to Twitter but the internal sharing to Facebook suggests the culprit. It’s entirely reasonable that the Instagram servers triggered the IFTTT callback but then a bug caused the posting to be rolled back or otherwise fail to show up on Instagram. (IFTTT likely uses the Instagram real-time API which receives information about new uploads pretty much immediately.) The Facebook connection when using the share option inside Instagram happens after it is posted, so that’s how it could show up on Twitter via IFTTT but not Instagram or Facebook.

Nothing nefarious. Many apps nowadays practice “optimistic updates” where they show the expected result of an action before it has been committed to the server. The effect is a much more responsive app, but it can also mask persistence errors if not handled properly. Did he actually look to see if it had gone to Facebook?

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


“Did he actually look to see if it had gone to Facebook?”

That was my first thought as well. Is there anyone who actually saw it on Facebook to confirm that it was in fact deleted.

Is Instagram owned by Facebook? If the post is missing from both and they’re not controlled by the same people, I’m more inclined to believe that something else happened.

Goyo (profile) says:

Of course Facebook is going to play the role of the arbitrary editor if they think it is in their interest. When you give a lot of power to someone you can expect them to use it.

It may be true that a huge percentage of people currently get their news via Facebook, but that does not give Facebook journalism any credibility to call into question now that they deleted a random post from a random photojournalist. That’s not the issue here. If you give Facebook a power comparable to mainstream media, you will get from Facebook the same you get from mainstream media. What else would you expect?

Stallman has been saying “see what could happen if you rely on someone else’s platform, avoid it” for a long time, but he is just an extremist…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Correction:

Random observation: this is why news outlets do a disservice to their readers when they kill off their community comments sections.

The subject of a post had an issue with part of the story and mentioned it publicly. The author acknowledged the issue, made a clarification/correction, and stated as much. Publicly, right here in front of everyone. That’s transparency.

TD may be ‘just’ an opinion/analysis blog, but it does journalism a hell of a lot better than The Sunday Times.

Anonymous Howard says:

Facebook is broken a lot

I’ve had one thing formally removed from my facebook, but several things have disappeared. Sometimes they come back hours or even days later. I think the site is just really flaky.

“Duck Boats” (the rickety half bus/half boat things that are — for reasons I still don’t get — popular with tourists)

I went on one of those in London, England. The river level was really high and quite choppy.

I enjoyed it.

VDC Photo says:

Other Deletions

I have been in a similar situation myself.

A few years back I was photographing a murder scene and had posted a photo of the body covered by a tarp.

Someone had reported the photo so it was subsequently taken down, and my account was suspended for 3days basically saying that my content was inappropriate and that I was blocked.

Facebook is very finicky about news.

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