Open Questions Remain in Facebook Censorship Flap
The controversy over Facebook’s apparent censorship of a photo of two male actors kissing continues.
On Friday afternoon, one of my fellow bloggers at Dangerous Minds, Niall O’Conghaile did a quickie cut-n-paste blog post about a “kiss-in” protest scheduled for that night in London at a pub where two young men had been asked to leave earlier in the week because they were kissing. You can read Niall’s post here. He decided to use the above photo because he felt that it was inoffensive (Some outlets have reported that this photo came from the London “kiss-in” page on Facebook, but this is not true, it was Niall’s choice and he found it on Google Images).
I didn’t really pay that much attention to the matter, but before we went to sleep that night, my wife Tara McGinley, who also blogs at Dangerous Minds, mentioned that this heavy metal kinda guy “Jerry” had written a bunch of childish and homophobic things about this picture on my Facebook wall, saying that he found it “disgusting.” Predictably, a bunch of people jumped all over him and right around 10:30pm Tara noticed that “Jerry” had deleted all of his comments and vamoosed.
The next morning I woke up around 6am to find a note from Facebook waiting for me with the ominous subject “Facebook Warning” informing me that I had posted “abusive material” which they had removed.
Metzger presumes that “Jerry” reported the image/post as sexually explicit, and that set into motion some internal processes at Facebook that led to its eventual removal. (We’ll come back to this in a moment.)
Meanwhile, buried on the 6th page of comments from Metzger’s original post complaining of the photo’s removal is a comment left by “Facebook Communication, providing the following sterile message (screenshot):
Comment from Facebook: The photo in question does not violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and was removed in error. We apologize for the inconvenience.
While this comment from Facebook has been lauded as a grand apology (and I, too, mistakenly thought that The Advocate had actually received an official statement from Facebook), Metzger doesn’t let them off the hook that easily:
The so-called “apology” touted by the likes of Perez Hilton, Pink News, The Advocate and even mainstream news sources like AOL, Huffington Post and Gawker, as if some kind of “victory” had been won by the LGBT community was nothing more than generic “Oopsie! We goofed” text left by a low level Facebook employee six pages in on the comments to the original Dangerous Minds post. …This supposed “apology” was nothing more than a “comment.”
…Furthermore, it’s not saying anything specifically about a gay kiss. This generic text could also refer, for example, to a photo of a breastfeeding woman that someone reported as “abusive” (their word not mine) to Facebook’s censors. Don’t break out the champagne so fast, folks.
I similarly bemoaned in my original post on the lack of any official comment, blog post, press release, or broader explanation by Facebook on how such an “error” happened, what kind of content review processes are in place, or any promise to take better care. I have heard from private, unofficial Facebook sources that “This was all a misunderstanding. None of the content was against our TOS”, but nothing else has been publicly stated on the matter.
So, where does this leave us? Even if we accept Facebook’s generic explanation as both accurate and sufficient in this instance, many unanswered questions remain. Critical questions, indeed, considering the cruel dichotomy of Facebook’s mission to “[Give] people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” and its unquestioned power to control the platform, and thus the conditions under which people are allowed to share.
Below I provide set a open questions related this incident, and I look forward to a public dialogue with Facebook to help address these issues and hopefully resolve some of these concerns.
1. What exactly happened? I think the first issue that needs resolution is an explanation of what exactly happened here. While we can’t expect Facebook to provide details of every case of content removal, this particular situation has caused significant concern — and misinformation — that it deserves specific attention. Facebook should let us know if the image was reported as offensive, and whether an employee then decided to remove it. I suspect a suitable, public explanation can be provided that won’t divulge any private or proprietary information.
2. What was the process? Assuming that the image was indeed removed by an employee (and not just some automated process), we deserve an explanation as to how that process works. Earlier versions of a help page noted that a “A Facebook administrator looks into each report thoroughly in order to decide the appropriate course of action”. The same page now indicates that “we remove reported content that violates our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”. What internal processes exist to make these decisions? Who is authorized? What kinds of definitions and guidelines are provided to determine if something is offensive? Is it a single person who can decide, or must multiple people concur?
3. Has the help page changed? As previously noted, the screenshot of the relevant help page notes the URL string as “/help/?faq=17292″. If you visit this page now, the description has changed. Now there is no mention of a Facebook administrator, and the answer merely states “No, we remove content reported that violates our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities“. Either I’m not able to find the correct help page (and I’ve been trying), or Facebook recently changed the text. We deserve an explanation as to whether this language has been changed, and why. What is originally incorrect (that no administrator actually looks into each report), or has the process now been changed that makes that language obsolete?
4. Have any other processes changed? In general, has this incident prompted any other changes to internal processes within Facebook for dealing with reported content. What kinds of discussions have emerged in the wake of this controversy?
I hope to hear from Facebook, and will share whatever I can.