Facebook and it's attempt at censorship
Dontcha 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. The editor-in-chief of Norway's largest newspaper, Aftenposten, then published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg protesting Facebook’s actions, and including the photo.
acebook 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 siumilar summary 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, often home-based moderator will check your content against Facebook’s fairly stark 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 – and I've certainly had much mileage from them both as IT writer and as stand-up – Facebook continues, out of sight, to impose its own version of middlebrow frat boy 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.
On first sight, this is a fussy, prudish sort of organisation – but like many American 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, 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 American liberalism dressed up as high-mindedness which few people in government, until recently, have been prepared to stand up to.
Perhaps the first cracks appeared a year or so back in respect of the real names policy. I along with others in the UK spent months attempting to raise this issue with Facebook: not least the fact it almost certainly broke UK law. In the end, after it became clear that Facebook would do and say anything other than engage seriously with its critics, we gave up.
A rude awakening arrived in the form of a rulings 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 PM 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 also have added: and our culture, too. For Facebook are very much about cultural homogeneity. Yet, incredibly for a nation that has so recently so focused on “taking back control”, and frets about the loss of Christmas tradition, this issue scarcely registers on on the national rageometer.
The roots of this apathy trace back to a Prime Minister, David Cameron, who thought he could solve all the UK's online ills by outsourcing censorship (by online moderation and filtering) to US and China-based companies.
We can also thank the civil service – in this case the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – that energetically agreed, appointing senior figures from US filtering companies to oversee our policies, and a supine Labour opposition, which dared not even bring argue that filtering and censorship in the UK should at least conform to UK legal requirements.
Perhaps this latest incident will function as 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 British values, we'd do well to examine more critically what is slipped into our culture diet under the guise of global harmony.