What happens to news on Facebook and Instagram?
That’s a question longtime Philadelphia journalist Jim MacMillan is trying to answer after he says a photo he took of a fatal accident was deleted from the social networks. (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)
MacMillan was riding his bike near 11th and Arch last month when he saw emergency vehicles gathering. He surveyed the scene of what was later revealed as a fatal pedestrian accident involving a Ride the Ducks boat. MacMillan says he snapped a photo — seen above and used with his permission — and loaded it on his Instagram and Facebook accounts before leaving the scene.
“I saw the victim’s body between the right, rear wheels and it was clear that she was dead,” MacMillan recounted in a Facebook post this weekend, “but I posted a more sensitive picture of police on the other side of the vehicle and captioned it only to say: ‘Police hang a tarp after a person was caught under #RideTheDucks boat at 11th and Arch just now. Looks very serious.'”
On Friday night, MacMillan says he noticed the picture was missing from his Facebook and Instagram feeds. Facebook official Liz Heron told Billy Penn the company has so far seen no confirmation of the photo being taken down from MacMillan’s Facebook or Instagram accounts.
“His photo wouldn’t have violated our policies,” Heron said. “We’re still investigating to see whether some technical issue prevented the photo from being uploaded. ”
MacMillan told Billy Penn he had spoken with two Facebook officials. They said there is no record of that photo ever being posted on either Instagram or Facebook, or of it being taken down. He said the officials told him they are looking into the matter.
But MacMillan said he recalled showing the photo to friends on his phone shortly after he posted it last month.
“How do you respond to that?” he said.
It’s an important question for Facebook, which reaches more people in the United States — 128 million — than any digital publisher. And in recent years, Facebook has become a major driver of traffic to news websites — though its algorithm determines what stories get seen. Major news organizations like the New York Times and Buzzfeed have made deals with Facebook that let the company produce “Instant Articles,” which are content from news websites that can be viewed directly on the Facebook app.
Part of journalists’ fears: Facebook decides what’s appropriate and what’s not, and can censor by removing images and posts. As part of its community standards section, Facebook includes this language: “To help balance the needs, safety, and interests of a diverse community, however, we may remove certain kinds of sensitive content or limit the audience that sees it.” Facebook then goes into slight detail about how violent and graphic images could be taken down if they are posted “for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.” (Instagram has a nearly identical policy on newsworthy events.) People who violate their guidelines and have a post or picture taken down generally get an explanatory notification.
Duck vehicles have been controversial in Philadelphia, dating back to 2010. Then, two Hungarian tourists, 16 and 20 years old, were killed when a barge ran over a stranded Duck boat in the Delaware. The incident led to a $17 million lawsuit, paid by the company that owned the barge and the company that owns Ride The Ducks. Duck vehicles are jointly regulated by PennDOT and the Coast Guard.
MacMillan wrote on Facebook he took the picture in a way that spared “viewers the traumatic effects of graphic imagery whenever possible. In other words, I was operating conservatively within standard practices of photojournalism.”
“A loss of a life is the most important thing here,” MacMillan told Billy Penn. “I hate to bring all this attention to my Facebook when there is a more serious issue at hand, but this is important, too.”