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Tumblr's self-harm policy raises censorship concerns

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Last week, Tumblr revealed that it’s clamping down on blogs and posts that promote self-harm.

At the time, the site asked for feedback from community members, and the most common type of comment related to the plan was concern that Tumblr would not allow any type of content related to self-harm.

That’s not true, as the site’s staff has clarified in a blog post. It says while it won’t allow any blogs that encourage self-harm and spur others on to do so, it won’t take any action against community members who want to document their self-harm experiences. It also won’t act against those who simply want to discuss self-harm or people who provide support to those who are dealing with conditions related to the issue.

Tumblr wants to be a place where anyone who is dealing with self-harm can find the community support and understanding needed.

There won’t be a blanket ban on tags or content related to self-harm. Rather, the policy will be applied on a blog-by-blog basis by the Tumblr support staff. The staff is well aware that manually moderating blogs to differentiate between those that promote self-harm and those that discuss it will be a difficult task, but pledges to do their best.

To reflect the clarification in the site’s stance on self-harm blogs and posts, staff members have created a new draft of the policy:

“Promotion and Glorification of Self-Harm. Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or injure themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seeking counseling or treatment, or joining together in supportive conversation with those suffering or recovering from depression or other conditions. Dialogue about these behaviors is incredibly important and online communities can be extraordinarily helpful to people struggling with these difficult conditions. We aim to sustain Tumblr as a place that facilitates awareness, support and recovery, and to remove only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification of self-harm.”

When Tumblr initially revealed the policy update, it said it would start displaying public-service announcements when community members search for tags associated with self-harm promotion, like “thinspiration” and “thinspo.”

To that end, it has worked with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to improve the language it will display:

“Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that when left untreated, can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information and support, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.”

Tumblr is working with other health organizations to create similar PSAs for pro-suicide and pro-cutting searches.

The clarification post has thus far received 3802 likes and reblogs.

Though many users are broadly in support of the policy, some, like cinnamonscent, were against Tumblr invoking any type of censorship whatsoever: “I’ve got issues with tumblr censoring content at all. I know they mean well, but I don’t want people changing the way they blog just because of the site’s restrictions.”

“Their heart is in the right place, but this could be the end of tumblr,” a community member wrote on the blog klausfuture. “As soon as you step in and start making judgments on content and accepting responsibility to do something about it, you open yourself up to the world of “Well, why aren’t you doing x about y?” which can lead to chaos as well as lawsuits.”

Photo by carolyntiry