Facebook Censors Refugee Photographs

On August 28, 2015, a boat filled with Palestinian and Syrian refugees sank off the coast of Libya. As many as 150 were drowned. On August 29, Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh posted an album of seven photographs to Facebook, entitled Multicultural Graveyard. Six photographs showed drowned children and youths from the shipwreck, while one depicted a pile of orange body bags. He did not indicate their source.

The photographs are elegiac, mournful and devastating. They were shared over 100,000 times, reaching me on August 30 via an Indian friend living in the U.K. I was moved to write a blog post “The Drowned and the Sacred” that has been read and shared thousands of times.

However, on August 31 many of the Facebook community, who had shared and discussed the photographs and my post, noticed that the link to Barakeh’s album had disappeared from their timelines and activity logs, including myself. In the screenshots below, I have obscured names other than my own and Barakeh’s because, even though these were public posts, this seems right: I am happy to undelete on request. Here’s a typical thread (below):

Barakeh censored Barakeh commentsI confirmed with the artist that his album had been deleted by the app. None of us received any notification or explanation from Facebook as to why they had all been deleted, as this thread (below) indicates:

Thread on deleted Barakeh

It is the case that in some threads, a few commenters had questioned why the photographs were being shown (see below).

Comment 1

Far more comments, however, expressed gratitude at being able to view them, while being shocked and saddened at their content. And even more were shocked at their censorship (below):

Barakeh comments

No messages were received to explain the removals. Facebook’s posted standards explain only: “We remove graphic images when they are shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.” In this case, the images are graphic only insofar as we know that they depict death. No injury or blood is visible, nor are the bodies exposed in ways that might be found “graphic.” Certainly, there can be no question of sadism, glorifying or celebrating violence.

Barakeh is a well-known and widely exhibited artist. There is no justification in Facebook’s own rubric for this arbitrary and unexplained action. It was applied inconsistently and some have since reported that the photographs have been restored, following extensive outrage on Facebook itself and Twitter.

Here Facebook has often done more harm than good. In restoring a screen shot of the album to Barakeh’s timeline, the title of the album, Multicultural Graveyard, has been deleted. That title indicates that the intent of the image sharing was to provoke reflection on what has happened to multiculturalism, as well as a mourning for the tragedy of lost young lives. Without it, a viewer might have more reason for concern.

In recent days, people have also seen posts on Australian refugee camps, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and Johannesburg street art disappear. What is Facebook doing? Is it a cock-up or a conspiracy? Either way, we should be concerned.

Adrian Chen reported last year that Filipina/o workers are paid about $300 a month to delete content that they find inappropriate for “companies like Facebook and Twitter.” Facebook wouldn’t share anything more with him about how this happens. But if he’s right, what’s happening here is not a tweak of the algorithm but a low-paid, albeit often highly skilled, tech drone swiping left.

These are the categories Chen says are used to delete posts at Whisper: “pornography, gore, minors, sexual solicitation, sexual body parts/images, racism.” So my guess is that the simple depiction of three children, whose torsos (not genitalia) were partly exposed led to a quick decision to remove the photographs.

With close to one billion users, Facebook is, like it or not, the public square in this fraught moment of globalization. In particular, it is being used extensively by refugees themselves and by those seeking to help them. We now need to find ways to hold them to appropriate standards for this vital resource and to agitate to make sure such censorship is not happening elsewhere.