Beheading videos have no place on Facebook

The site must take responsibility for its content

Facebook’s decision that it will once again allow footage of people being beheaded on its website is difficult to credit. Indeed, such was the outpouring of abhorrence yesterday that even the Prime Minister felt emboldened to comment, bemoaning the move as “irresponsible” and calling for an explanation for “worried parents”.

Such matters are, of course, an issue. But the implication that graphic images of real people being murdered are a danger only to children is a strange one. There must surely be few of any age who would be untouched by such gruesome viewing; and it is hardly desirable to cultivate such insensitivity, even in adults.

In its defence, Facebook says that its site is “a place where people share their experiences, particularly … connected to controversial events on the ground”. But it is hard to see how such nobility of purpose translates into grim videos of horrific – yet entirely banal – violence. The caveat that, while such things can be posted, they cannot be “celebrated”, is just as meaningless. Not only does a Facebook page confer a degree of normalcy upon that which is better kept abnormal; it is risible to suggest viewers’ responses can be controlled. Meanwhile, there is also a question of consistency here. Presumably rape, say, or paedophilia, is still off limits. Or are they not?

Claims that the decision is part of a grander debate about free speech are equally ill-conceived. Facebook is not the internet. To suggest that leaving such horrors to the web’s dark corners is an infringement is to imply that every editorial decision made by, for instance, a newspaper is an implicit act of censorship.

It is Facebook’s hasty promise of extra warning banners and access controls that give the game away. The company is trying to have it both ways. It cannot. The law may not yet have caught up, but Facebook is, in effect, a publisher. As such, it must take responsibility for its content. And that means no more beheadings.