For years, we've pointed to examples of seemingly ridiculous and/or arbitrary examples of Facebook's content moderation team blocking
content as offensive
, often in a manner where it apparently can't distinguish
between nudity that is art or newsworthy, from that which is just titillating.
The latest example is getting a ton of attention as Facebook deleted an iconic Vietnam War photo
of a young girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack. It's one of the most famous war photos ever, and the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten included it in a story of "seven photographs that changed the history of warfare." The writer of the piece, Tom Egeland, posted it to Facebook as well, and Facebook not only took the post down, but suspended Egeland.
This resulted in a front page story at Aftenposten, in which the site's editor published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg
. The conceit there is a little silly -- it's not Mark Zuckerberg specifically banning this. It's a poorly paid team of content moderators who have some basic guidelines and are told to do their best.
And a few points are necessary here: (1) the argument that some make that there should be zero
moderation at all isn't particularly sustainable. Such sites automatically get overrun by spam. If you agree that spam should be removed, then you accept moderation -- and then the question is how much. (2) Moderating content at scale is more difficult than you think
. Yes, we make fun of Facebook for these kinds of things too, but that doesn't mean it's an easy problem to solve. This is one of the reasons why we keep arguing that social media sites should look more towards being protocols instead of platforms
and then to provide end user tools
that allow individuals to create their own moderated experiences, rather than having a centralized team do the work (which they'll never do well enough).
But, in this case, there does seem to be a bigger problem. And it's a problem that we see all too often with larger companies like Facebook. Which is that when alerted to such a problem, rather than recognizing the obvious problem, they double down. Here's the response Facebook originally sent Aftenposten:
If you can't read that, it says:
We place limitations on the display of nudity to limit the exposure of different people using our platform to sensitive content. Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breasts, will be removed. Photos of women actively engaged in breast feeding or exposing reconstructed nipples for awareness are allowed. We also make allowances for digitally produced content posted for educational, humorous or satirical purposes, and for photographs of real world art. We understand that these limitations will sometimes affect content shared for legitimate reasons, including awareness campaigns or artistic projects, and we apologize for the inconvenience.
Therefore I ask you to either remove or pixelize this picture.
What's funny is that many of the "exceptions" listed above are actually examples that Facebook has been mocked in the past for banning, and thus the list looks like it's been amended each time the company gets embarrassed. So, I would imagine that eventually that paragraph is likely to include an exception for "historic photos" or something of that nature. But, in the meantime, Aftenposten has mockingly put up this image:
The full letter from Aftenposten's Espen Egil Hansen is worth a read, but I'll leave you with this part:
The least Facebook should do in order to be in harmony with its time is introduce geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication. Furthermore, Facebook should distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.
These measures would still only soften the problems. If Facebook has other objectives than just being as big as possible and earn as much money as possible – and this I am still convinced that you have, Mark – you should undertake a comprehensive review of the way you operate.
You are a nice channel for persons who wish to share music videos, family dinners and other experiences. On this level you are bringing people closer to each other. But if you wish to increase the real understanding between human beings, you have to offer more liberty in order to meet the entire width of cultural expressions and discuss substantial matters.
And then you have to be more accessible. Today, if it is possible at all to get in touch with a Facebook representative, the best one may hope for are brief, formalistic answers, with rigid references to universal rules and guidelines. If you take the liberty to challenge Facebook’s rules, you will be met – as we have seen – with censorship. And if someone will protest against the censorship, he will be punished, as Tom Egeland was.
It's easy for some people to just say "Well, don't use Facebook," but for many people that's not really an option these days. You
may have that luxury, but many people do not. Facebook has become a key way to stay in touch with family. It's an important part of many people's jobs as well. And, yes, Facebook has every right to moderate the content on the site, but it seems worth calling out when that moderation comes across as silly and counterproductive, as it does in this case.