On the ground | Information democracy | Freedom of expression online

You cannot post “a bag of bones” on Facebook

By Bits of Freedom (guest author) · February 27, 2019

However shocking our reality may be, sometimes you have to face it. By censoring a news article about the horrific war in Yemen, Facebook completely disqualifies itself as a platform for public debate.

This story should be heard

“Chest heaving and eyes fluttering, the 3-year-old boy lay silently on a hospital bed in the highland town of Hajjah, a bag of bones fighting for breath.” This is the first sentence of an article by the New York Times about the war in Yemen. But the article actually starts with a photo. Below the headline and above this first paragraph a picture of the seven-year-old Amal Hussain fills the screen. The picture is harrowing.

The article tells of the horrors of the unimaginable humanitarian disaster that is taking place in Yemen. For the third time in 20 years the United Nations is about to officially speak of famine. This story must be told and heard, no matter how painful it may be.

Censorship, censorship, censorship

That was also the opinion of freelance journalist Shady Grove Oliver, who shared the New York Times article with her followers on Facebook. Soon the post was removed because it was supposedly in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards. Why? The photo accompanying the newspaper article contained “nudity or sexual activity”, according to Facebook.

The journalist pointed out this shameful mistake to Facebook, but the platform stuck to its decision. Persevering, Grove Oliver asked for a real review by an actual human being. In a message to Facebook, she referred to an article by the editors of the New York Times in which the newspaper accounts for its decision to confront readers with the shocking images. Facebook still refused to reconsider its decision and instead blocked Grove Oliver’s entire account. Only hours later the account and the posts were shown again.

Fauxpologies from Facebook

On the same day as the article, the New York Times published an extensive piece in which it explains why it made the difficult decision to publish these photographs. “This is our job as journalists: to bear to give voice to those who are otherwise abandoned, victimized and forgotten.” This stands in stark contrast to the way Facebook dealt with this important story. Firstly, Facebook’s content moderation policy is apparently so blunt that it confuses photos of emaciated children with “nudity or sexual activity”.

Secondly the journalist, once Facebook realised its mistake, received the usual clumsy fauxpologies from the company. The apologies were shown in a screen entitled “Warning”, followed by a text indicating that Grove Oliver must confirm that she “understood”. No explanation about how it’s possible that this happened, how bad Facebook thinks this is, or what it learned from this. And, yes, what happened next is unfortunately no surprise: a few hours later another of Grover Oliver’s posts was censored.

Facebook disqualifies itself (again)

It isn’t the photos of children that are shocking, but what is happening to these children in Yemen. And we must be confronted with that story. However painful it may be, we should not look away from it en masse. Reality is often harsh. It isn’t bad at all that we are confronted with it from time to time. It isn’t bad at all that it sometimes makes us feel a little queasy. That confrontation, that queasy feeling, are sometimes the driving force behind change. That’s why the New York Times writes: “we are asking you to look.”

Facebook’s mission is to bring “the world closer together.” But how do we get closer to each other as long as we are not allowed to see the suffering of others? When images of children who are victims of a horrible war are simply brushed away? Don’t these children belong to “the world” Facebook has in mind? And why do we still have faith in a company that cannot distinguish famine from sex? Or indeed: that it might not even want to?

Once again Facebook has completely disqualified itself as a place for public debate. With its dominant position, the company stands in the way of a critical view of the atrocities of our time. We urgently need to review how we want to communicate with each other.

You cannot post “a bag of bones” on Facebook (only in Dutch, 19.12.2018)

The New York Times: The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War (26.10.2018)

Tweets by Shady Grove Oliver (16.12.2018) https://twitter.com/ShadyGroveO/status/1074426791736107019

Why We Are Publishing Haunting Photos of Emaciated Yemeni Children (26.10.2018)

(Contribution by Evelyn Austin and Rejo Zenger, EDRi member Bits of Freedom, the Netherlands; translation from Dutch to English by Martin van Veen)