Content media

The problem with Facebook’s content warnings

Ads exposing animal cruelty are rejected by Facebook in favor of those supporting the meat industry, writes David Marten.

FACEBOOK’S ALGORITHM considers two sponsored posts that feature the same chicken. In the first message, she is alive and struggling, confined in a tiny cage, en route to her untimely death. In the second, she is dead, decapitated and roasted. Can you guess which post was approved? It turns out that Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is misleading its consumers in more ways than one.

There is a strange and unsettling disconnect between the food we are happy to see on our plate and the true story of the living animal that ends up becoming that food – often under painful and distressing circumstances. A drumstick was once the thigh of a live chicken that didn’t want to die. But Facebook only allows advertising for one of these images. A hint: it’s one meant to appeal not to your head or your heart, but rather to your stomach.

Ads are placed on Facebook feeds by animal rights organizations like The Humane League, the group I work for, to raise awareness of the reality of factory farming. These advertisements depict chickens raised for consumption (commonly referred to as broiler chickens) and their experiences on factory farms.

But Facebook’s algorithm often rejects these ads under its “sensational content” policy. Facebook requires posts that share “violent” information and images or “graphic content” to be accompanied by a content warning, which cannot be included in paid ads.

The miserable and tortured life of chickens raised for human consumption is heartbreaking from start to finish. Broiler chickens live in some of the most brutal conditions encountered by any non-human animal. When they hatch, the chicks are packed on conveyor belts, resulting in forced immunizations as well as mutilations, which often include severed beaks, toes and combs with no pain relief. They live in indoor sheds among hundreds of thousands of other birds, in cramped and often dirty conditions.

Over the years, the meat industry has bred birds to grow abnormally large, all so consumers can get more meat per meal. Birds grow so big, so fast that their bodies cannot support their own weight, leading to painful conditions and fractures. Finally, chickens undergo their last moments in an abattoir, usually after only 47 days of life, which is considerably shorter than their typical lifespan of up to seven years.

Deaths in slaughterhouses are often random and inhumane. Techniques used to stun a bird before it dies often fail, and many chickens venture awake and conscious to their own slaughter.

It’s no surprise that telling the stories of these animals provokes horror and sadness – it’s not exactly the kind of content you might be thrilled to see on an early morning scroll through your social media feed. I understand the rationale for Facebook’s Sensational Content Policy. But isn’t it ironic that while Facebook rejects The Humane League ads, companies selling chicken products are free to announce the end result of a broiler chicken’s tragic life?

A major way to reduce animal suffering

Cheerful young people celebrate over meals of chicken sandwiches; a family digs into a bucket of fried chicken. These ads aren’t limited to Facebook – you’ll find them everywhere, online and offline, from a YouTube ad to a billboard at a bus stop. Facebook and companies like it consider these images harmless advertising. But beneath the happy feast lies the dark story of a suffering animal.

The painful truth is that behind the everyday images of meat eating that most people barely register, cruelty and violence prevail. If more people knew the reality behind the chicken they eat every day – whether it’s bought from a fast food chain or bought from the supermarket – they could play a more active role in ending this suffering by making choices food or life more conscious.

If this were to happen, for example, some people might consider a vegan lifestyle; others might campaign for serious change and reform in the way broiler chickens are raised. This is part of the reason why animal welfare organizations work to open people’s eyes to how animals are treated to end up on the table.

But the very nature of the violent treatment means that social media algorithms like those used by Facebook limit the ability of organizations like mine to tell people about the cruelty experienced by the animals behind the meat they eat for their meals. It’s a catch-22 that chickens and other farm animals pay for.

Live export is an industry without benefits

It also reveals a larger problem that goes beyond the sponsored posts that Facebook’s algorithm allows animal rights organizations like ours to promote. It’s about the choices we make around our food consumption. Most people are kind and empathetic – of course, we don’t want to see a chicken suffer over our morning coffee. But this hen is suffering whether or not we choose to see her. The decision to prioritize our own comfort and convenience by looking away may seem easier, but it comes at a terrible cost.

If a hen experiences enough abuse that we need to flag her story with a content warning, doesn’t that make it obvious that we shouldn’t put her through the experience in the first place? Unlike other upsetting content that might be flagged with a warning, the way we treat farm animals for food is not a failure of the industrial farming system, but rather a feature of it – one cooked with herbs and spices.

This means that it’s not just Facebook’s algorithm that needs to be overhauled, nor the question of what makes content palatable. After all, consider the flip side – those who understand the truth about how chickens raised for meat are typically treated before they die might consider an ad featuring a chicken dinner worth a content warning. But content disclaimers alone won’t change minds and lead to productive conversations between the two groups sparked by the finished meat product or the story behind it.

It also raises broader questions about how we can take more responsibility for the food we eat by being aware of the torture that animals go through because of the faulty system that is the meat industry. It will take work to get more people to reconnect these two images – the chicken before it died and the chicken after. And this work is an essential part of reforming the system that encourages cruelty and pain in the name of profit and convenience.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

David Marten is a senior web developer at The Humane League.

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