Facebook banned beheading videos in May but recently lifted the prohibition, a switch the BBC flagged Monday.Dave Thompson/AP
Facebook quietly resumed allowing decapitation videos to be posted on its website Tuesday, lifting a temporary ban it had placed earlier this year on content featuring graphic violence. The world's largest social-media site said that it would work on new ways to keep users from stumbling across gruesome videos, but added that people would be allowed to post violent clips as long as the user condemned rather than celebrated the acts depicted.
Later on Tuesday, however, the site took down a gory video featuring a decapitation in Mexico after widespread public backlash and clarified its stance on violent videos.
"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," the company said in a statement. "People share videos of these events on Facebook to condemn them. If they were being celebrated or the actions in them encouraged, our approach would be different."
Facebook added that it was working on developing tools to allow users to control what content they see, including warnings that particular images contain graphic violence.
The decision — which has drawn criticism from British Prime Minister David Cameron — illustrates the difficulty of setting a universal standard across the social network, used by over 1 billion people.
Cameron, whose right-leaning government has unveiled several initiatives to censor objectionable content online, said Tuesday that allowing decapitation videos back on Facebook was "irresponsible."
After Facebook removed the controversial video on Tuesday, Cameron wrote on his Twitter profile: “I'm pleased Facebook has changed its approach on beheading videos. The test is now to ensure their policy is robust in protecting children.
Context, not content
Facebook had banned beheading videos in May, but on Monday the BBC reported that many Facebook users were complaining about a video on the site showing a masked man killing a woman in Mexico.
Facebook's administrators have faced persistent pressure from interest groups trying to impose their own forms of censorship or fighting to lift restrictions they see as objectionable.
Women's rights groups want the company to crack down on misogynistic content; others have ridiculed Facebook's ban on the depiction of women's breasts. Meanwhile, faith groups have urged the site to ban what they see as blasphemous content, and nonbelievers have decried what they see as Facebook's censorship of pages critical of religions.
Violent news content poses a particularly thorny questions for a website that allows children as young as 13 to join. For example, should photos of rescuers working during the Boston Marathon bombings be banned because some people object to showing gore? Images of torture and abuse helped fuel the rage that led to Arab pro-democracy demonstrations, but should those images have been banned for being too bloody?
One free-speech group says that if content is hard to watch, that doesn't mean it should be hidden.
"Films about beheadings may be deeply upsetting and offensive, but they do expose the reality of violent acts that are taking place in the world today," said Sean Gallagher of the London-based Index on Censorship. "When trying to draw a line about what should or shouldn't be allowed, it's important to look at context and not just content."
Facebook's current community standards forbid users from posting information that is threatening to others, as well as content that includes hate speech or is sexually explicit.
Groups with a record of violence or criminal activity are not allowed to maintain a presence on the site, and Facebook says that "sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited."