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Facing the Offensive

Photo by Andreas Hunziker (Flickr)

Facebook finds itself embroiled in more controversy this week. No, I’m not talking about the privacy problems cropping up again on the social networking site, which is rather old news for those who can remember the Beacon debacle back in 2007. More concerning is the banning of Facebook in Pakistan.

There is of course a precedent for this event. Some idiot posted a competition page on the site asking users to send in drawings of the Prophet Mohammed (I won’t bother giving exposure to such a page by linking to it). Now, that’s just asking for trouble, considering the recent fallout in America regarding an episode of South Park that tried to depict the Muslim prophet.

The fact that this is highly offensive to a large group of people is probably enough to warrant the page being pulled. Yet Facebook’s policy is to only pull content that is illegal a particular country, upholding the American right to free speech.

A a noble practice in theory, but one has to ask, how far are we willing to go to support such a notion? Pages such as “Draw Mohammed day” are clearly there to simply incite anger and racism. There’s unlikely to be any discussion regarding the representation of religion in society, as Facebook have claimed in their defence of the content.

On the flip side by banning such content where do we draw the line? Similar to the Australian Internet filter debate, generally what should be deemed offensive is very subjective. There are a few clear-cut examples of something that’s deliberately offensive, like the blatant flame-baiting seen in the Draw Mohammed groups, but what about the “joke” sites about turbans and women in the kitchen? Offensive to some, sure, but really bad enough to have them all banned too?

It’s basically the slippery slope argument, and it does gain a lot of traction when we’re trying to decide what’s ‘offensive enough’ to be banned from sites such as Facebook.

Facebook are claiming “don’t shoot the messenger” in this case. But in reality they’re distributing such content globally, just like any traditional media outlet, and they have to take some responsibility to what their users write. Whatever they do about the issue is going to irritate a large number of users, so should they stand by their freedom of speech mantra or start blocking deliberately offensive content?

-Anthony McPhee

Posted under: Media ethics, Social media
Dated: May 27 2010

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