Facebook has become an integral part of life for many of its 1.15 billion users. A decision by the company to reimpose a ban on the posting of gruesome videos and images such as those of beheadings is therefore sensible. Media organisations usually apply a "public interest" test to determine what should be published where morality issues are involved. Social media, given its prevalence and role, should follow the same example.
The test is one of offensiveness. Facebook has been inconsistent in this regard, tightly policing images of nudity and hate speech, but being largely hands-off with violent material on the pretext that members could post what they liked and have open discussion. Censoring that which is pornographic is understandable given children of 13 can join the site; having an open door policy on violent and disturbing content is not.
Concern about content promoting violence against women prompted the US-based company to pledge in May a policy review. But the reversal was short-lived; a BBC website reader recently complained that Facebook had refused to remove a video of a masked man beheading a woman in Mexico that had been titled: "Challenge: Anybody can watch this video?" British prime minister David Cameron's accusing the firm of irresponsibility and seeking an explanation for parents raised the profile of the issue. The social networking site's defence was that while images should not be posted for "sadistic pleasure", there was nothing wrong if they were presented as news or examples that should be condemned.
Warning messages were on Monday being added to violent images, but amid a widening outcry, the company on Tuesday removed the beheading video and said it would use a broader set of criteria in determining acceptability. In a world where the shock factor is so prized by attention-seeking amateur producers, this may not be enough. Facebook would do better to follow the example of the professional news media by directing more of its considerable resources towards ensuring a moral responsibility with content.