The Big Read: Facebook is a prissy censor

14 September 2016 - 10:14 By Jane Fae

Don't you just hate it when this happens? As content curator for one of the world's largest social media platforms, you delete a picture you consider obscene. Then some Norwegian woman writes an angry post. So you delete her post, too.I mean, who does she think she is? The prime minister of Norway? Oh wait.In case you missed it: last week, Norwegian author Tom Egeland posted to his timeline the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo The Terror of War, which depicts children, including a naked girl, running from a napalm attack, as a status concerning photos that "changed the history of warfare".Egeland's account was suspended. Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief of Norway's largest newspaper, Aftenposten, then published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg protesting at Facebook's actions, and including the photo. Facebook removed it from the newspaper's profile page which, he objected, restricted "room for exercising my editorial responsibility".Next up, the prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, protested, only to be censored in similar fashion. Finally, following worldwide outrage at their decision, Facebook backed down.This is the amusing reality of Facebook's haphazard content control system, which depends on the whims of its users and the brief attentions of a horde of human moderators. Everything you post on the platform can be reported by other users.When a report comes through, a low-paid moderator will check your content against Facebook's guidance and either allow it, remove it or escalate. Not infrequently this system does something stupid enough to go viral - such as censoring a famous work of art.It's easy to laugh at incidents like these. Too easy. Because while we're having our fun Facebook continues to impose its own version of middlebrow liberalism on the rest of the world, erasing minority and national cultures, with nary a squeak of protest from those who should be speaking up on our behalf.Take its ludicrous nipple policy. Male nipples are OK, female aren't, and transgender - well, it depends how they identify! Or look at the company's ongoing beef with breastfeeding. Or its obsessive categorisation of precisely what bodily fluids may be depicted and how.At first sight, this is a prudish organisation - but like many US companies it is far less exercised by violence. Beheadings and eviscerations are allowed so long as the quantity of gore on display is "not excessive". And jokes about rape, or violence against women? Perfectly acceptable because, after all, they are just jokes and, therefore, free speech.The reality seems to be: no sex please, we're American, but violence? Bring it on! As for inclusivity: they got the memo, but haven't quite translated it yet. Hence the somewhat tawdry bleat, as they climbed down over the Norwegian affair, that some countries might consider this image paedophilic.Indeed they might, just as some perverts might drool over mail order catalogues of children's shoes. But we don't remove children from our culture because of the actions of a minority.And this idea that Facebook listens to its users is pure spin, or self-delusion. Were it truly sensitive then its content policies would reflect equally Indonesian Islam, African Catholicism and Australian secularism.It might even respond more readily to minority concerns that the values it reflects are at best troubling and at worst deeply privileged and generally obnoxious.Facebook played the same tactic when it tried to impose "real names" on users. Despite many groups warning that this policy would put individuals in danger, Facebook ploughed on - before performing an embarrassing 360 and claiming that it was imposing this policy out of concern for victims (absolutely not for reasons of commercial interest, oh no!).So yes, laugh, but understand that Facebook's immense cultural influence is pervasive and pernicious: an anaemic US liberalism dressed up as high-mindedness which few people in government, until recently, have been prepared to stand up to.A rude awakening arrived in the form of a ruling by the Hamburg data protection authority in Germany that Facebook's policy breached individual privacy and was unlawful. The German authorities were interested, as were their counterparts in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and France. Facebook, previously unassailable, was being asked to explain itself.Meanwhile, protests over Facebook's prissy censorship have regularly been made by bodies as diverse as the New York Academy of Art and breastfeeding advocates. But these have as regularly been shrugged off by Facebook with "You can't please everyone".That is what makes the intervention by Norway's prime minister so important. For along with her objection to Facebook's censorship, she wrote of their decision: "What they achieve by removing such images, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history."She might have added: and our culture, too. For Facebook is very much about cultural homogeneity. Yet, incredibly for nations that have so recently focused on "taking back control", this issue scarcely registers on the national rage-o-meters.Perhaps this latest incident will function as a wake-up call. It really should. For Facebook is not just for life events: it reflects and projects a way of life.And if we really wish to reinforce our values, we'd do well to examine more critically what is slipped into our culture diet under the guise of global harmony. - ©The Daily Telegraph

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