The Sunday Times and the racist photo Facebook blunder

Fresh questions have arisen over the regulation and reliability of content on social networks after one of South Africa’s leading newspapers faced embarrassment as it emerged that its dramatic weekend lead story, based on a graphically-racist Facebook profile photo, was in fact a three-year old story — and had been extensively covered.

The abhorrent picture depicts a white male kneeling over the body of an apparently lifeless black child in the manner of a hunting photo. There were also questions over the veracity of the picture itself.

The story received world-wide attention after being picked up by major news services such as Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters. It appeared in the Washington Post, Voice of America, the Daily Beast, the Telegraph, amongst many others.

Amidst the furore, a leading South African journalist Mandy Wiener dropped a bombshell in a tweet.

According to Wiener, the EWN team had broken the story some time back, when it had initially surfaced on a Facebook Group.

Responding to a Facebook post from political analyst and academic Eusebius McKaiser calling the Sunday Times story a “system failure” of editorial processes, the newspaper’s editor Ray Hartley responded:

“Eusebius – The fact remains that this image has been pubished NOW, in 2011. We reported on the fact that the police want to know the identity of the person/persons who published the image along with a series of recent racist remarks. There has been no “system failure”, except that Facebook allows such images to continue to be published.”

South African Human Rights Commission Chair Lawrence Mushwana on Monday expressed concern over the unregulated nature of social networks.

Mushwana said that even though there was no doubt that social networking sites played an important role in promoting the right of freedom of expression, it was clear that practical ways should be found to ensure they were used appropriately.

Social media sites have become key sources for breaking news for journalists. There are as many new opportunities presented by social media for journalists, as there are pitfalls.

Recently, world statesman Nelson Mandela became a victim of the infamous Twitter “death hoax“, but here mainstream media successfully revealed the story to be a hoax, before publishing it. The news of Mandela’s “death” trended world-wide and prompted emotional outrage from users and political parties at the time.

The Sunday Times’ blunder may more be a case of journalists not thoroughly checking their stories, than questioning regulation of content on social networks. Social networks are mostly derived from user generated content, and trying to regulate the billions of daily posts and tweets would be an impossible task. Regulate social networks, and you change the very nature of these entities themselves.

Hartley’s new call for greater regulation of social network content may be a case of “passing the buck”. Content from social networks emanates from a diverse array of individuals — and it has become well-known, via countless blunders and mistakes, that mass media needs to check, double check, and triple check the veracity of content derived from the internet.

Social media analysis site Mashable reported that Facebook has been looking into new ways of moderating offensive content. The social network last year tested a feature called the Facebook Community Council.

The app’s tagging system allows council members to tag content with one of eight phrases: Spam, Acceptable, Not English, Skip, Nudity, Drugs, Attacking, and Violence. If enough council members tag a piece of content with the same tag, action was taken, often a takedown.

Facebook’s Policy
According to Facebook’s community standards, the social network is clear on its stance regarding offensive content.

Facebook states that, “While we are a platform for sharing events that take place in your life and around the world, any inappropriately graphic content will be removed when found on the site. Sadistic displays of violence against people or animals, or depictions of sexual assault, are prohibited”.

Facebook also encourages users to report such content.



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