Facebook is refusing to delete videos and images of “violent death”, abortion and self-harm because the web giant does not want to censor its users, it has emerged.
The American social media giant also allows people to live stream attempts to self-harm because it “doesn’t want to censor or punish people in distress”.
The website’s ethical guidelines, which were leaked to The Guardian, revealed that it has instructed staff not to remove controversial content which many would find deeply offensive.
It comes amid a growing row over Facebook’s responsibility to remove offensive material from its site. MPs have repeatedly called on the company to do more to take down violent content.
Theresa May, the Prime Minister, said last week she would bring in new powers to force companies like Facebook to explain why they have failed to remove harmful content.
But the leaked documents revealed that Facebook moderators – of which there are only 4,500 to police the accounts of nearly 2 billion users – are instructed to delete controversial material only in certain circumstances.
The documents include more than 100 internal training manuals, spreadsheets and flowcharts on how Facebook moderates issues such as violence, hate speech, pornography and racism.
Videos of abortions were allowed, the documents claimed, as long as there is no nudity while the website will allow people to livestream attempts to self-harm because it “doesn’t want to censor or punish people in distress”.
Another document said all “handmade” art showing nudity and sexual activity was allowed but digitally made art showing sexual activity is not.
Photos of animal abuse could also be shared, with only extremely upsetting imagery to be marked as “disturbing”, according to a copy of the rulebook.
Types of remarks that could be permitted because they were not credible included: “Little girl needs to keep to herself before daddy breaks her face,” and “I hope someone kills you.”
Other remarks by the website which were apparently allowed included how “to snap a b—-’s neck”, or “f— off and die” because they were not regarded as credible threats.
In one of the leaked documents, Facebook acknowledged “people use violent language to express frustration online” and feel “safe to do so”.
It said: “We should say that violent language is most often not credible until specificity of language gives us a reasonable ground to accept that there is no longer simply an expression of emotion but a transition to a plot or design.
“From this perspective language such as ‘I’m going to kill you’ or ‘F*** off and die’ is not credible and is a violent expression of dislike and frustration.”
It added: “People commonly express disdain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in generally facetious and unserious ways.”
Yvette Cooper, a former Labour Cabinet minister who chaired the House of Commons home affairs select committee in the last parliament, said the leaks “show why we were right to call on social media companies to urgently review their community guidelines as too much harmful and dangerous content is getting through”.
She said: “In most cases the reality of sharing vile and violent images of violence and child abuse simply perpetuates the humiliation and abuse of a child.
“Images should be given to the police and removed instead. Facebook are getting this wrong and need to urgently change.
”These companies are hugely powerful and influential. They have given people a platform to do amazing and wonderful things but also dangerous and harmful things.
”Given the impact of the content decisions they make, their standards should be transparent and debated publicly, not decided behind closed doors.
”Tim Loughton, a former Tory minister who also sat on the committee, added: “This appears to show that Facebook’s control over content on its platform is in complete chaos.
“Clearly they need to clarify the rules of what is ‘in’ or what is ‘out’ and make sure they have sufficient moderator capacity to implement it transparently and fairly.”
Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, said that the service had almost 2 billion users and that it was difficult to reach a consensus on what to allow.
She said: “Keeping people on Facebook safe is the most important thing we do.
“Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that over the next year, we’ll be adding 3,000 people to our community operations team around the world — on top of the 4,500 we have today — to review the millions of reports we get every week, and improve the process for doing it quickly.
“In addition to investing in more people, we’re also building better tools to keep our community safe. We’re going to make it simpler to report problems to us, faster for our reviewers to determine which posts violate our standards and easier for them to contact law enforcement if someone needs help.”
Earlier this month Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, announced plans for another 3,000 moderators on top of the 4,500 people it already has checking posts.
He said: “Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen people hurting themselves and others on Facebook — either live or in video posted later.
“It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can do better for our community. If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly.”