Opinion Web Exclusive

Facebook’s removal of photos generates questions about its role


Kirin Daniels // The Daily Cougar

Now in its tenth year, Facebook provides a medium for an ever-growing community to interact and share content with each other. Facebook users post photos documenting their major milestones, their achievements and simple happenings in their everyday lives.

Recently, 19-year-old Texas Tech student Kendall Jones was embroiled in a controversy over the photos that she chose to share on Facebook. Many people were outraged after she posted pictures taken with dead, endangered wild animals she hunted on safaris in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Others have defended Jones, arguing that hunting the animals helps with population control and that the permit fees and other expenses go toward conservation efforts.

Still, the dissenting voices appear to have been louder, as over 300,000 people signed an online petition to have Jones’ photos removed from Facebook.

Following this, Facebook took down most of the photos of Jones with animals she had hunted, including photos of a lion, an elephant, a hippopotamus, a leopard, a white rhinoceros, a zebra and an antelope.

According to the The Huffington Post, Facebook was following its predetermined policy as it applies to every user and not solely because of the petition and the large disagreement from animal rights groups, as were the initial assumptions.

“We remove reported content that promotes poaching of endangered species, the sale of animals for organized fight or content that includes extreme acts of animal abuse,” a spokesperson for Facebook said. “The number of reports does not influence whether a piece of content is removed.”

Facebook did not specify which of these applies to Jones’ case. If the reason is that her photos promote poaching of endangered species, this does not explain why so many of her photos were taken down.

Additionally, not all of the animals Jones hunted in Africa were technically endangered. Lions, African elephants and hippopotamuses are classified as vulnerable; leopards and white rhinoceroses as near threatened.

One species of zebra and some species of antelope are endangered, though Jones did not explain which species of these she killed. Nevertheless, all of these photos were taken down, except for a photo of a white rhinoceros Jones said was not dead but tranquilized for blood testing.

The removal was in accordance with a rule listed on Facebook’s community standards page that said the “graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site.” However, this rule is subjective and open to interpretation. Photos of dead animals such as deer and wild pigs hunted in the U.S. are regularly posted on Facebook, and Facebook does not remove these.

Thus, this series of events and Facebook’s decision brings into question Facebook’s role and responsibility as a social networking website with a presence in many countries and among many age groups.

Political science and English literature senior Dailey Hubbard said she thinks it is Facebook’s responsibility to remove offensive content.

“It’s a social networking site, so you kind of have to be held responsible if you’re the one hosting such a website for what people of all ages … can see,” Hubbard said. “I wouldn’t be supportive of someone posting pornography or something like that. Or someone posting photos of them doing drugs … there has to be a limit of what you can post and share with others publicly on such a social networking site.”

For years, Facebook maintained strict regulations on nudity and pornography, removing even breast-feeding photos and nudity for the purpose of art. However, after an equally long period of outcry from breast-feeding mothers and activists, Facebook modified its policy to allow for breast-feeding photos showing breast and nipple.

“We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breast-feeding,” their community standards page now says.

Most artistic nudity is still not allowed though. This month, professional photographer Jilly White was blocked from Facebook for 24 hours and had one of her photos removed from the site. The photo was posted to the Coppertone Facebook page and showed her 2-year-old daughter having her bathing suit bottom pulled down by another young girl in a pose reminiscent of the sunscreen brand’s classic advertisement and previous logo.

According to Fox News, White said she received a notice from Facebook giving her the option to either delete the photo or change her privacy settings. After she chose to ignore the notice and keep the photo up, Facebook temporarily blocked her from logging in.

While one can argue that Facebook cannot make exceptions, it has already shown that with enough backlash and complaints, it will. Perhaps with a large enough petition, Facebook will allow Jones and White to keep their photos.

Overall, Facebook’s enforcement of its vague policies is mysterious and unpredictable. However, all removals are based on reports from users, so the content would have to offend someone.

These reports are received and decided upon by individual people, so the site’s moderation is subjective. Most of all, Facebook wants to please its user base, and that means listening to reports on the website proper as well as complaints from other parts of the web.

A Facebook spokesperson spoke of this dilemma to The Daily Mail.

“It is hard. With over 1 billion people using Facebook we have to put in place a set of universal guidelines that respect the views of a wide range of people,” the spokesperson said. “These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for everyone on Facebook.”

Graphic communications freshman Kathren Knigge said she believes the responsibility of avoiding offensive content should be on the individual user.

“(Jones) has a right to have (her pictures) up,” Knigge said. “And if you didn’t want to read them or see them, you just click the arrow and then press ‘I do not want to see this anymore’ and then you don’t have to see them anymore.”

When it comes down to it, Facebook owns the website and is offering a free service to its users. The only thing on Facebook that belongs to a user is the content of their account; the means through which it is published belongs to Facebook, and that means can be discontinued at their discretion.

Furthermore, Facebook allows for users to appeal the removal, therefore Jones, White and other users do have an opportunity to make their case to re-upload their content.

It is important to remember that Facebook isn’t stopping anyone from hunting, just as they weren’t preventing anyone from breast-feeding before. Nor is Facebook stopping anyone from sharing his or her content elsewhere on the Internet.

The company simply is trying to maintain the well-being of a large and diverse community. However, if Facebook wants to continue another ten years, it will need to consider whether censorship might drive away as many of its users as it appeases.

Opinion columnist Eileen Holley is an English literature senior and may be reached at [email protected].

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