Facebook removes photos of safari shooting spree – but not for the reason you might expect

Facebook has removed several photos from the profile of U.S. cheerleader Kendall Jones, who last week sparked outrage for uploading several smiling images of herself posing with the bodies of wild African animals she had killed.

The ‘trophy photos’ show Jones proudly standing over dead wild animals she shot while on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe earlier this month including a lion, a zebra and a leopard. At the time of writing, one photo remains in place, of Jones with an (apparently tranquillised, not dead) rhino.

But contrary to popular assumption, it wasn’t the 327,000 e-signatures in this online petition or even protesting animal rights groups which caused Facebook to prick up its ears – apparently the photos just violate its policy on ‘graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence’.

So where should a social media giant like Facebook draw the line? It surely can’t keep track of absolutely everything that’s uploaded, and much of what is considered ‘offensive’ is very subjective – this isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticised for being over-zealous with its censorship. Mere months ago, it suspended the entire profile of a user who uploaded a photo of two women kissing, and recently had to change its policy on what constitutes ‘obscene content’ after a backlash over its removal of several breastfeeding photos. Last year, a photo of a woman’s post- double mastectomy ‘survival’ tattoo was also removed as it violated the site’s policy on nudity.

Whether you find her impressive or horrifying, Kendall Jones clearly touched a collective nerve when she sent images of her gaudy grin into cyberspace. The more interesting question is over the grey area of censorship – a smaller website might get away with turning a blind eye, but a company as big as Facebook has a responsibility to its users to be free of explicit images if it wants to portray itself as an indiscriminatory, open and safe online space. Many have made the case that it’s ridiculous for groups of a racist or homophobic nature to be allowed to stay on the site while something as innocent as a child’s bum is deemed inappropriate for public consumption.

The tricky bit for Facebook is how to strike a balance between being a platform for free flow of opinion while guarding against offensive content. Is withdrawing Kendall Jones’ controversial photos taking it too far?

Sadie Hale