Breasts are forever in Facebook’s hands

Most of you who read me here know me as a speaker and educator — but I am by trade a newspaper reporter, and have been all of my adult life.

The other day, we had an upsetting yet predictable thing happen to us in the newsroom at Sydsvenskan, the seven-day morning daily where I work in Malmö, Sweden.

We had covered a small news story on the town — a demonstration for women’s rights, where a couple of people were seen not covering their torsos.

We posted a link on our Facebook page. And Facebook’s big old porn alarm went off.

Do that again, dear people at Sydsvenskan, and we will suspend your account. Bare breasts!? Obscene! Morally reprehensible!

Stuff like that happens every so often: value systems clash. Facebook is an American company with American values. Surprisingly often, those values go well with Scandinavian values. Nudity, however, is a clear and interesting exception. Americans are simply way more prudish — ask any new Swedish parent who has posted a picture on Facebook of a newborn baby eating, and in return received a warning for displaying “pornography”.

There are more examples. Recently, the very ambitious Photographic museum in Stockholm showed an exhibition that contained some nude photography. Ancient things, well over a hundred years old. Facebook closed their account.

So how does this censoring process actually work? In two ways:

First, there are sophisticated algorithms that automatically detect content that Facebook believes may be offensive — such as pictures from a story in which women are demonstrating. That was what happened in the story that triggered the alarm this time.

Second, there are people who work with manual screening, often young people, with poor wages, who sit and look through the content — not to think for themselves, but to follow a strict policy, a set of moral guidelines.

Even a large media company like Sydsvenskan won’t stand a chance arguing with Facebook. Our opinion is a non-issue for the world’s largest content platform.

Also, there are no established links of communication: if our newspaper’s editor in chief wants to discuss a matter with Facebook, there is certainly no number for her to call, no person to contact, in a situation like this.

We are completely in the hands of Facebook. Through Facebook, we find a huge part of our visitors, and thus a crucial part of our digital revenue. Media companies trying to survive digitally, while not completely adapting to the rules of Google’s search and Facebook’s shares, will die. It is, in fact, a sort of market failure: The netizens of the world are simply too conformist.

Facebook is currently working intensively to persuade the world of content providers, major media companies, to use more advanced tools for publishing, directly on Facebook.

This should be understood as a part of Facebook’s ambition to transform themselves into a walled garden of the internet, a website that you really never have to leave, a website that provides everything.

It seems absolutely obvious to me that the publishers of the world should stay out of any deeper cooperation, until Facebook shows something that resembles an understanding of the complexity of publicistic matters.

And if they indeed want to create a reasonably trusting climate of cooperation? Well. They could always start by manning some phones. We are serious users. We are serious about our business. We are serious about seeking an audience.

Some respect. Please.


Andreas Ekström is a journalist, analyst, author and keynote speaker — based in Sweden, but working all around the world. He writes on Medium most Tuesdays. Read more here:

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