Throughout 2016, Facebook took a hands on approach to curating the digital environment in which its users interact. Although privacy groups have long fretted about how the site tracks users and sells that data to advertisers, in 2016 the company increasingly used its power to censor opinions and images deemed undesirable.
Facebook content is monitored in order to maintain “community standards.” This should mean that it allows for cultural diversity and encourages respectful discourse. “Our Community Standards aim to find the right balance between giving people a place to express themselves and promoting a welcoming and safe environment for everyone,” the company explains in a letter to users.
Images that don’t fit that view can be removed at the site’s discretion, but these community standards increasingly seem arbitrary. For example, one bug on the site shut down anyone who shared a particular image of a cat’s head photoshopped into a suit. Even sending the silly shot in a private message was enough to have a user’s page disabled.
Other bans point to problems with how the site treats controversial themes, with many worried about its tendency to turn towards censorship. One of the most visible of these spats occurred after Norwegian author and journalist Tom Egeland was banned after posting a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a young girl running naked from a napalm attack.
Facebook said that the famous image violated its “community standards,” but many in Norway saw it as an attempt to censor an historical image. When another Norwegian newspaper published an editorial criticizing Facebook, the site banned the editor who wrote it for posting a link to the story on his personal Facebook page.
It even deleted a post by the Norwegian prime minister which defended the journalists. “When Facebook removes an editorial from a Norwegian newspaper, it shows the online community a lack of respect for editorial freedom unlike anything I have ever seen,” said editor Gunnar Stavrum in a follow-up.