Dr Camilo Tamayo Gomez advises Facebook on policies related to COVID-19

Dr. Camilo Tamayo Gomez has been approached by Facebook to provide recommendations in the development of policies on how to treat images of COVID-19 related deaths on the social media platform.

Dr. Tamayo Gomez explains, ‘It is well known that social media plays a crucial role in informing people about what happens in society. This is especially important on topics in which social media consumers do not possess direct knowledge or experience, such as the case of COVID-19.

It’s important to understand that visual representations of the pandemic on social media are more effective in constructing public perceptions about an issue than text narratives. As a result, social media companies have a responsibility to address this issue, and in particular how COVID-19 related visual content is managed and moderated in the online world.’ 

Facebook policy prohibits images of deceased persons having, or assumed to have, suffered a violent death. Users are also prohibited from sharing or uploading visual content showing graphic material. 

However, the actual policy problem is how to treat images of COVID-19 related deaths where the deceased/corpse is visible. Images of COVID-19 deaths do not qualify as violent death under existing Facebook graphic and violent content policies, and they are currently being allowed on the platform.’

Dr Tamayo Gomez provided three policy recommendations to Facebook, which could be implemented across other platforms:

  • First, to update their policy and ban pictures and visual content related to COVID-19 deaths where the deceased/corpse is visible. This ban can help avoid panic amongst the population, and as a way to give dignity to the victims of COVID-19.
  • Second, when it is unclear if a picture is explicitly visualising a COVID-19 death, Facebook should apply a warning screen over such images to let viewers/audiences know that the content is sensitive. This warning should also provide more context to users to help understand the relationship between visual representations of COVID-19 and negative attitudes towards victims or particular social and ethnic groups that have been wrongly associated with the disease in particular communities.
  • Finally, encouraging Facebook to explain publicly how they are addressing the issue and why it’s important. In particular in relation to the construction of narratives, representations, and public perceptions of COVID-19 on social media. 

Further recommendations included the creation of visual 'fact-checkers' to understand if a particular picture has been used according to specific social contexts, and the creation of flags as a mechanism for reporting images related to COVID-19 deaths where the corpse is visible.

Dr Tamayo Gomez continues, ‘social media has a crucial responsibility in the construction and circulation of public information related to COVID-19, and online narratives can affect public perceptions. Visual information that people are uploading, receiving, and sharing on social media in relation to COVID-19 can legitimise the actions of the powerful or facilitate social change at the collective level.

This can also limit and shape the behaviour of individuals, accepting long periods of quarantines/lockdowns or socially agreeing on the use of tracking devices that can undermine civil rights. For these reasons, the impact of pictures showing COVID-19 deaths is determinant to shape public debate in terms of political agendas and in the construction of communal belief and attitudes on how to deal, in the long-term, with this virus.’

An overview of the implementation of policy changes to address COVID-19 by Facebook can be found here. In previous years, Dr Camilo Tamayo Gomez has advised Facebook in how to develop its policy in regards to depictions of physical harm in the platform. These policy recommendations were implementations of his on-going research work on Multiplatform Social Justice and Communicative Citizenship issues.