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The heads up. Why Facebook has lifted its ban on decapitation videos.

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In my late teens, a video was doing the rounds. It was called 'Faces Of Death' and I don't think it was an official release - more a much-copied bootleg. Essentially it was a compilation of clips showing people meeting their deaths in accidents. A snuff movie by any other name. Despite its rarity and underground credentials, I didn't watch it when I had the chance. Even at that reckless age, I saw no pleasure in seeing people die in unfortunate circumstances.

Well, here I am in 2013 and find myself a few clicks away from a video showing the decapitation of a young woman by a couple of desperate maniacs. Not a horror movie. Not a special effect. And not  some clandestine, 'dark web' location, but on one of the world's most popular websites: Facebook.

Today, Facebook announced it was lifting a temporary ban, imposed in May, on posts containing clips of torture, abuse and death. Specifically, beheading videos.

This was their justification:

"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 are sharing this video (the beheading) on Facebook to condemn it. If the video were being celebrated, or the actions in it encouraged, our approach would be different."

Clearly, the social network is claiming the move is all about freedom of expression, and the opportunity for users to say how terrible videoed executions are.  To my mind, this statement is more than a little disingenuous.

The 'mission statement' on Facebook's homepage says it 'Helps you connect and share with the people in your life.' Apart from any considerations of taste and harm, it's hard to see how this goal is enhanced by hosting links to images of strangers being killed. But the doubts run deeper.

The very people who advise Facebook on good practice (they sit on its Safety Advisory Board), counselled against the inclusion of this graphic material and have told the BBC they were not consulted about its re-inclusion on the site.  And a number of charities have confirmed that exposure to such footage is known to cause trauma and lasting psychological damage in some viewers, particularly children. The minimum age for Facebook membership is 13.

Actually, I don't object to deeply shocking footage being shown on public media. But context is everything. Scenes of war, pestilence and famine are vital in the accurate reporting of human affairs. Within a journalistic or explanatory setting, they can be a positive force for good - think of Michael Burke's bulletins from Ethopia, prompting Bob Geldof to launch Band Aid. However, the power of these films is so profound, it is incredibly dangerous to provide almost everyone with a platform on which to share them. Besides, condemning murderous crime has never required a video of the offence taking place.

With all this in mind, what could possibly lie behind the Facebook decision? Well, we can dismiss the notion of free expression. The site's terms and conditions still prohibit explicit sexual content in posts - (oddly, this includes images of breast feeding). Yes, that's right - users are forbidden from linking to scenes of human nudity, baby nourishment or physical congress, but are welcome to push videos of the most depraved violence.
I suspect the real answer is as simple as it is cynical. The Facebook business model is almost entirely based on advertising revenue. That income derives from user and visitor numbers, so the network has a vested interest in hosting content which attracts traffic. Depressingly, the more extreme and explicit the imagery, the more curiosity it arouses. So, Facebook instinctively imposes as few restrictions on its content as possible. Indeed, I would suggest its ban on sexual material is only there to prevent a storm of photos and films turning the site into the world's biggest porn distributor.

I'm sure Facebook is not involved in a conspiracy to load their social network with the most objectionable content, but it is concerned with protecting its enormous value by sustaining high levels of membership and traffic. Therefore any editorial decision-making will always be coloured by that impetus.

Whether giving the prurient, goulish and sick ready access to unimaginably horrific films is the best way to keep the figures up, remains to be seen.    

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant    

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