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Beheading videos: Facebook’s focus on the ‘context’ of violent content is admirable but unachievable

The full experience of watching a film like this can’t be easily summed up

It is now the most infamous of images. A kneeling woman has her throat slashed horizontally by a man in a mask – her mouth rent in agony, her eyes rolling back into her head. Unsurprisingly, the realisation that Facebook had relaxed its informal policy against uploading films showing beheadings was met with the usual confused furore that normally accompanies any change to the company’s rules and regulations.

Yet while online privacy and censorship are concerns that exert a consistent if light pressure on the minds of many web users, the possibility of seeing something so gruesome that it will stay with you for the rest of your life, etching, as Dr Arthur Cassidy described, a "permanent trace" in your mind, should be a particularly acute concern for members of the site. In 2009, Caitlin Moran, a columnist for the Times, wrote of accidentally viewing a film that creeps the net under the title ‘3 guys 1 hammer’. One of the ‘guys’ in question is shown being methodically eviscerated by the two others: a pair Ukrainian teenagers who later became infamous under the moniker of the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.

The full experience of watching this film can, presumably, never be summed up in one sentence, but the title of her piece, which I recommend reading if you should ever become curious about the film, should be enough to give you an idea of the effects of chancing upon such a video: “It took 1 min 47 seconds for my memory to become host to a horror that will never go”. Elsewhere on the web, chat boards are choked with comments chalked up by people listing the video as the one thing they wish they could ‘unsee’.

It’s strange, then, that Facebook’s main concern when it comes to videos that depict graphic violence is simply that they do not ‘celebrate’ the content they show. Following complaints from a huge number of public bodies and individuals, including David Cameron, the site has clarified their policy to state that they will ‘take a more holistic approach surrounding a violent image or video, and will remove content that celebrates violence’.

The site has also said that it will ‘consider whether the person posting the content is sharing it responsibly’, and ensure that it is accompanied by suitable warnings. While I support this ‘suck it and see’ approach as a way to ensure that user-generated content is not censored, I’m left wondering whether Facebook will be able to ever police its enormous population in this way – and whether the context of the original posting is the right thing to take into account in this situation.

In the case of the video that kicked off the current news-tangle, I'm left not with a a burning concern for context  – but rather an overwhelming wish to 'unsee'.