Written by An Experiment, Special To CNN
You might have noticed a few Facebook employees quietly piling up messages about inappropriate material on their timelines in recent weeks. Their job was to spread safety messages via their computer screens after angry citizens bombarded their profiles with rude comments and threatening posts.
Such responses are now required by Facebook’s policies following the company’s recent crackdown on abusive behavior.
Social media giants can now hand over user data to police and investigate allegations of posting inappropriate material. Credit: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
The experiment — conducted in Germany, a bastion of privacy advocates — attracted international attention after German interior minister Horst Seehofer announced plans to give his officers powers to investigate online behavior with limited judicial oversight, as a way to stem abuse allegations.
But in early December, the experiment found itself the subject of censorship by German authorities and high-profile users for failing to comply with the country’s privacy rules.
“In a democracy, our freedoms shouldn’t be infringed if we try to engage in lawful behavior,” Google in Germany’s public policy head Philipp Voss told CNN.
German authorities clamped down on any harmful content such as discriminatory commentary. It’s unclear what functions are being shut down, but it’s likely that the images are being distributed less but censored altogether.
“We want to be able to have meaningful conversations with our users…we want to remove [content] as much as possible,” Voss said.
Facebook – home to over 10 million users in Germany, where it was founded – faced a backlash from German internet users, who saw the experiment as an erosion of the platform’s principles and reasoning.
The test posed a profile image that could be found in Facebook’s “relationship album” section, where users can post photographs or highlights from an ongoing relationship, as part of the test.
It was then opened to a random selection of users, in a copycat game similar to Netflix’s “Hidden Figures” to see how they would react. The images selected were “saucy,” stereotypical depictions of sexual liaisons or offensive items like Holocaust imagery.
Three people used different pictures to represent their own relationship: the idealised version of their current relationship, the less idealized version, and the range of images that the average person may draw when they see a sexually suggestive girlfriend, such as a blonde and petite size 2 underwear model, complete with flower manicure.
According to Voss, those included on the test were assumed to be participants in an ongoing relationship so they could’t react to “saucy” images like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills have done with similar “Netflixania” experiments.