NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Facebook allows users to report photos that violate its policy: illegal drug use, for example, or graphic violence. Last year, engineers at the company noticed that the majority of those reported photos contained nothing obviously offensive. In fact, many looked like ordinary pictures of ordinary people. It turns out that some of those people simply didn't like the way they looked in those pictures, and young people in particular felt some images were being used to bully them.
If you've ever reported a picture on Facebook, call and tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Arturo Bejar is a director of engineering at Facebook, and he joins us from a studio at Stanford University. Nice to have to you on the program today.
ARTURO BEJAR: Nice to be here today, Neal.
CONAN: And when did you realize that the user's definition of a reportable photo was different from your definition?
BEJAR: So we usually sit down with the people who process the reports as they come in, and we like to see what they're doing and what the content that is being reported. And we went to the photos. And we're going for photo after photo after photo, and it was reported for like violence or drug use or pornography. And we're looking at the photos and we're like there's absolutely nothing wrong with that photo. That photo is fine.
Somebody — might not be the most flattering photo. And then we noticed that the person who was reporting the photo happens to be in the photo. And so we began digging into the issue from there.
CONAN: And so as you started to realize that these are people who were tagged, as the expression goes, in that photograph, clearly, some of them did not enjoy their image.
BEJAR: Absolutely. And when you look at the two options that we give you when you see a photo and you don't like how you look in the photo, you can either talk about it in the comment thread for it, in which you're pointing attention to it, you're calling attention to it in front of all of your friends. Or you can hit report. So people were hitting report and were using the available categories to let us know that they didn't like the photo and that they would want to have the photo taken down. But we wouldn't take it down because there's nothing wrong with the photo.
CONAN: So how did you decide to adapt your policy then?
BEJAR: So we made it such that when you hit report, we ask you if you're in the photo. And then we ask you if the photo is unflattering or if you don't like how you show up in it or whether you find it harassing or bullying you. And most people say, you know, I don't like how I look in this photo. And in the first version we did of this, we put up a blank message box where you can send a message to the person who posted the photo, usually a friend of yours.
And most people faced with that blank box wouldn't put anything in there in which they would, sort of, step out of the fore because they didn't know how to handle that conversation with their friends.
CONAN: They didn't want to confront anybody and were uncomfortable and didn't know how many people were going to see that message too.
BEJAR: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And so what we did is we were, at that time, talking to somebody at the Compassion Center in Stanford, the Compassion Research Center and - called CCARE. And in talking to them, they were telling us that what triggers your compassion reflex is when you recognize that the other person is experiencing an emotion. So if you notice that they're sad, if you notice that they're happy, if you notice that there's something going on with them, how you engage with them changes.
And we tried different pieces of text in that open dialogue box. We put in I don't like how I look in this photo. We tried different messages. And then we allow you to edit before you send it so that's in your voice, but we wanted to facilitate the conversation by putting some default words in. And in doing...
CONAN: Some prompts, some suggestions.
BEJAR: Absolutely. To prompt some suggestions for people to send a message. And we found that the message that said, hey, I really don't like how I look in this photo, most people would feel comfortable sending that message. And most interesting, most people who receive that message would just go ahead and remove the photo.
CONAN: Did they reply back at all?
BEJAR: Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't.
CONAN: And sometimes, did they apologize?
BEJAR: Sometimes they did, yes.
CONAN: It's interesting because you can sometimes get a flaming email from somebody, and they don't really expect you to write back. But if you do, they will say, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd take it that way.
BEJAR: Absolutely. And as we look at the content and as we've been looking at the space very closely for sometime now, we find that most status updates are photos that people find stressful were not intended to be that way at all, that the person posted the photo because they liked it. They thought it was funny. They didn't notice how the person looked in the photo or they were saying a comment which they thought was clever. And you're and the computer and you post that, and you don't have the - that you cannot see the person's face when you're saying this to realize that what you're saying might be impacting them in some way. And so we could do some work to help facilitate that conversation.
CONAN: There is another category you mentioned earlier, and those are people who thought that the pictures were intended for bullying or harassment, and that's different.
BEJAR: Yeah, that is different. And what we wanted to do there is that - we found as we're looking in the space that most people seem to think that online communities are different from real-life communities, that the rules are different, that the way you engage with things is different. And that we don't believe to be true. We believe that we could facilitate real-life connections, that we want to have the same mechanisms that you use in real-life communities to solve online issues. And so when we're looking at bullying, if you're getting bullied in school, you don't write a letter to a superintendent. You tend to go to a principal, to a teacher that you trust, to a friend to give you support.
And so when we looked at how the bullying reporting work, we made it very easy for you to take the photograph or the piece of content and share it with someone in your life, and give both people and the party tools to say how you deal with the issue once you're presented with it. Because we think that if you can send it to a parent or a teacher or a friend, they can come talk to you and help coach you through the issue and help you see for what it is and help deal with an issue as a community. And that's what we wanted to facilitate.
CONAN: So that a third party needed to be brought into the conversation at some point, but not necessarily a third party from Facebook. You're not the police, here.
BEJAR: Yeah, we're not the police, and the only thing Facebook can really do is take the content down. And sometimes, the bullying content - message, when you look at it, it's like, oh, you look great today. And we don't recognize that as bullying. We don't have the social context of what's going on. Now, if we do take things - we get the reports, we will take the content down, absolutely. But as we were studying the space and we've - with our safety advisory board and talking to teachers and other people, we found that the best thing to deal with this is to help the target of the bullying deal with the situation, because you might not be able to change the behavior of the bully. And so to have somebody in your life come and talk to you and give you support is, I think, an important way to do that.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've reported a picture, then asked that it be taken down on Facebook. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Janice, Janice on the line with us from Minneapolis.
JANICE: Hi. Thanks for taking the call. You know, I had photo - or I asked for a photo to be removed. I was at a political event. And where I work at, we were, you know, we're asked not to participate or engage in this kind of stuff. And someone took a picture without my permission. But before I know it, I'm tagged on Facebook at this event. And so I contacted the person or - and they didn't take it down. So I went to Facebook, but I felt like I had to report it as an indecent picture, or rude, in order to get a response.
CONAN: So, as far as you knew, the intention was not malicious. It was just somebody who took a picture, you happened to be in it. You were may be somewhere - you certainly didn't want to be seen in that picture. And I wonder, Arturo Bejar, how does that situation play out?
BEJAR: So we try to give you tools. For example, if you're tagged, you can make it so that you can approve whether a photo shows up in your profile or not. And so you can have queue where if a friend tags you in a photo, the photo will not show up in your profile unless you've approved the post in your profile. So we try to give you tools to control what gets presented that's associated with you. Now, if the photo gets reported to us and we look at it and it doesn't break our terms of service, we don't feel it's our place to take it down. And so I think in this case, we hope that the conversation with the person who posted the photo works out. But at the same time, you know, somebody who receives the message has the right to keep the photo, because it's a photo that they took.
CONAN: Janice, is this photo still up?
JANICE: Yes, it is. And I didn't even know the person who took it or give permission to take it. And it just feels - even though it's not on my profile, everybody else can see. I'm identifiable. And so I guess that was my question, too: Are there any other tools that I can use?
CONAN: Anything - oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.
BEJAR: I'm sorry. So I think in this case, really talking to the person who posted the photo, asking them to take it down, letting them know how you feel about the photo is the best thing that you can do.
JANICE: OK. Bye, thank you.
CONAN: Good luck, Janice. Thank you very much for the call. Let's see, if we can go next to - this is Nicole(ph) , Nicole with us from St. Clair in Michigan.
NICOLE: Yeah, St. Clair Shores, correct. Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead.
NICOLE: Well, I was just calling because the main times I've reported any photos have primarily been photos by dog fighters, of dog fighting, and then there are also some artists, particularly in other countries, who post on Facebook pictures of what they consider art, which is they maim and do terrible things to animals until they're dead and then take pictures with them. And I've reported some of those. But I find it interesting, because at the same time, we post pictures of shelter animals who have been victims of dog fighting. And so it's not so much - it's the intent behind the picture that seems to matter.
CONAN: Hard to figure out, sometimes.
CONAN: And that's interesting. But the pictures of dogs being mauled, Arturo Bejar, would seem to come out to the graphic violence part.
BEJAR: Yes. We have a team that's very dedicated to reviewing those images. And if they do - we have a set of guidelines. And if they do violate the guidelines, we will take the photo down. And if we have repeat issues, we try to notify the person who posted the photos so that they can learn not to be posting that kind of content on Facebook.
CONAN: Nicole, thanks very much for the call.
NICOLE: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Susie, Susie with us from Salt Lake City.
SUSIE: Hi. I just actually had a recent situation where we had to go almost to the route of reporting photos. My son is two years old, and my brother-in-law was posting all these pictures of him on Facebook. And though they're not inappropriate in any way, I don't feel comfortable. I don't know who's on his friends lists. I didn't want pictures of my son on Facebook without me knowing. We went about trying to ask him to take them down. He wasn't willing to do that. So we were going to try to report them. I guess my question is: How do we - does Facebook have a policy, are they going to get a policy to keep my child's face - I don't want random people being able to post his pictures on Facebook without my knowledge.
CONAN: Because once they're out there, they're out there.
SUSIE: Yeah. And it just makes me uncomfortable, because I don't - he has a thousand friends. I don't know these people. I don't know - you know, I don't know who's looking at my son's photos.
CONAN: Well, clearly, you know him and you've talked to him. But, Arturo Bejar, is there any kind of a policy that you can - people are concerned about the safety of their children.
BEJAR: Yes. And I think that, first, you have start with the conversation and how that goes with the person who posted the photo, because there will always be the possibility for somebody, in some event, going and taking their photo. And they need to do understand that you care about your children, and whether you want your kid's pictures to show up online or not. And this is a conversation that you need to be having with your friends, because it's pretty easy in a family reunion for somebody to take a picture and have the image be shown up there.
Now, we do make it such that when you post content and other things, it should only be visible within the circle of their friends, and without a tag or some other kind of direct link, it's not that - they would know that their - your kids - when somebody's looking at the photo. But I think from our prospective, for photos that, again, when you look at the photo, there's nothing in there that breaks Facebook terms of service, that the real important thing, that when you post - try to facilitate online and really encourage to happen in person is to have that kind of a dialogue. Because sometimes you will be tagged in a photo, and you really are not comfortable getting tagged in photos.
Or sometimes somebody will put - post a picture of you at a bar, and you're not comfortable having that picture posted. The only people who can tag you are your friends, and you have to have these conversations with - to give the feedback to your friends about, like, you know, I am not comfortable how I look in this photo. Can you please be more mindful about it? Because again, in what we found is most people don't intend that to be the case.
CONAN: So have a conversation with - is he your brother-in-law, Susie?
SUSIE: Yeah, he's my brother-in-law, and I think the hard part is he wouldn't take them down. And then it's just hard, because where do I go from there? I've had the conversation. There's no way for me to say, Facebook, hey, I'm uncomfortable. I just - I guess that's where the struggle is, when you try to have the conversation and it's still up there. I can't get the pictures removed.
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry, Susie. Good luck. If you have another conversation, good luck.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUSIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And Arturo Bejar, we thank you for your time today, for sharing information about how this policy is being adapted. We appreciate it.
BEJAR: Oh, thank you very much for having me today.
CONAN: Arturo Bejar is a director of engineering at Facebook. He joined us from a studio at Stanford University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.