As a former kidnap hostage, I want to know: why does Facebook think it’s OK to show beheading videos?

Mark Zuckerberg’s sister has just penned a childrens’ book about a little girl who discovers the joys of life away from the internet. Randi Zuckerburg, 31, was inspired to put write Dot after worrying that her own little boy, who’s aged two, might growup  with no real idea of how wonderful life offline can be. As she says on her blog, “Life’s a little bit richer when you look up from the screen.”

Quite right, Randi. Although, be warned, there is one penalty of spending too much time logged off, and that is that you miss the chance to watch Facebook’s lovely beheading videos.  There’s lots of them out there, apparently, and Facebook thinks it’s important that people should be able to see them if they want to.

So much so that it has just overturned a temporary ban on showing them after a complaint from the Family Online Safety Institute they “crossed a line” (presumably a red, spattered one). David Cameron is not happy about Facebook’s decision, and has said today that they should “explain their actions to worried parents.”

I’d like them to explain their actions to me too. Because unlike the bods on Facebook’s corporate ethics board, or whoever it is, I have actually come rather closer than I would like to starring in a beheading video.

Five years ago, I was kidnapped in Somalia, spending six weeks in a cave with in the company of a bunch of armed lunatics. To my immense relief, they turned out to be pirates rather than jihadists – despite their habit of praying five times a day – and I was fairly confident that they wouldn’t ever be getting the video camera, sword and black banner out.

But strangely enough, when your life is in their hands, it doesn’t quite seem like that. One of them used to look at me occasionally and draw a finger over his throat, and even though he was grinning at the time, it still sent a chill down my spine. Call me a wuss if you will.

But yes, I am one of the lucky ones. Other hostages aren’t so fortunate, though, and I can’t help wondering whether those who end up beheaded would be that happy that their personal snuff movies were being bandied around on Facebook. The deceased, of course, are not around to ask, although Facebook seems to have decided for them, if this rather high-minded statement is anything to go by.

“Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences,” Facebook said. “Particularly when they’re connected to controversial events on the ground, such as human rights abuses, acts of terrorism and other violent events.”

Right. So the people getting beheaded are “sharing their experiences”, are they? Surely it’s just the beheaders doing that, isn’t it?  And beheading someone on film and putting it on the internet is just “controversial”, right? As opposed to one of the most grotesquely barbaric acts possible? And how can it possibly not count as “glorifying violence”, which is one of Facebook’s current criteria for removing videos?

The answer, according to Facebook, is that “people share videos of these events on Facebook to condemn them”. Yup, that’s right, thumbs down all round. In other words, we are invited to think that that somewhere out there, these videos are posted by some serious human rights discussion group, where they swap comments on how terrible it all is. As opposed to going “LoL, see how that guy’s head spurted”.

But if that’s the case, do they really need to actually see the videos in order to hold an intelligent conversation about it? I don’t think so. I report on terrorism and the activities of drug cartels quite a lot, and have never suffered writer’s block from not having seen someone’s head actually getting sawn off. If Facebook is that concerned about stimulating discussion of the “human rights issues” around beheadings, then it might consider the rights of the people being decapitated in the first place.


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