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2017-01-23 02:55:10
Snapchat Discover Takes a Hard Line on Misleading and Explicit Images

SAN FRANCISCO — On Snapchat last week, MTV published an article with the headline “Is this the thirstiest person on earth?” The article, which ran on Snapchat’s news service, Discover, appeared with a picture of a bikini-clad blond woman taking a selfie, even though the piece was about a fully clothed man.

Those kinds of risqué and misleading images will now be much less prominent on Discover because early on Monday, Snapchat updated its guidelines for publishers in a way that essentially cleans up what is shown on its news service.

The new rules more explicitly restrict publishers from posting questionable pictures on Discover that do not have news or editorial value. Snapchat also clarified guidelines that prevent publishers from including reports or links to outside websites that could be considered fake news, saying that all content must be fact-checked and accurate.

The changes aim to “empower our editorial partners to do their part to keep Snapchat an informative, factual and safe environment for everyone,” said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the company.

Snapchat said it also planned to give publishers a tool in February that would allow them to age-gate content, or stop minors from seeing some content altogether.

The moves — which come ahead of an initial public offering expected for this spring by Snapchat’s parent company, Snap — underscore how the company is trying to distinguish itself from rival social media services. Facebook and Twitter typically give users, including publications, wide latitude in what they can post, which has led the companies into one controversy after another — including criticism over fake news and outrage over harassment and abuse by internet trolls.

Snapchat is pre-emptively acting to limit those problems in a way that is reminiscent of how traditional media companies curate what they show people.

“Snapchat thinks about the role that its content plays in the lives of consumers differently,” said Steven Kydd, one of the founders of Tastemade, an online food publication. “This is cable all over again, except for a mobile and global audience.”

Cleaning up what is published on Discover could have many benefits for Snapchat, like helping the service appeal to advertisers, which would not have to worry as much that they would be advertising alongside inappropriate content for Snapchat’s primary audience of teenagers and 20-somethings.

The new rules could also whet investors’ appetites for Snapchat if they help the company avoid the taints of fake news and online abuse that have dogged its rivals.

“In this environment, every technology company that touches media is concerned about being vulnerable to connections to fake news and disinformation,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “That’s doubly true for a company planning for an I.P.O.”

Snapchat introduced Discover in January 2015 as a part of its mobile app, where it publishes content from established media brands like CNN and Cosmopolitan, as well as newer outlets like the political channel We the People. For Snapchat, Discover is a way to engage users more deeply. Publishers see Discover as an avenue to reach a new and younger audience.

From the start, Snapchat approached news differently from other social networks. While Facebook has said it is not a media company and does not want to be an arbiter of truth in news on its website, Snapchat has long prohibited false or deceptive content and is thoroughly involved in editorial standards for content on Discover.

In a blog post published when Discover began, Snapchat said: “Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.”

As a result, Snapchat has always exercised a large degree of control over Discover. To secure a place on Discover, publishers have had to agree to fairly stringent guidelines around editing and video production, including having audio play at a consistent volume and a ban on images that are misleading or gimmicky. Snapchat also mandated that all images and headlines be appropriate for an audience as young as 13 years old.

Discover has grown quickly. More than 100 million Snapchat users view content on Discover each month, according to the company. While some publishers said people were initially slow to embrace Discover, interest has increased over the past year. Tastemade, which publishes different editions for different areas around the world on Discover, said it had been pleased enough with the size of its Snapchat audience that it planned to grow with Snapchat as it rolled out worldwide.

Still, Snapchat has not been able to entirely sidestep criticism about what it shows on Discover. In July, a class-action lawsuit filed against the company alleged that Discover intentionally exposed minors “to harmful, offensive, prurient and sexually offensive content without warning minors or their parents that they would be exposed to such explicit content.”

The lawsuit cited examples of inappropriate content on Discover, like a post from BuzzFeed that sexualized images from Disney movies and a post from Cosmopolitan, with photos, about a performance artist who let strangers touch her genitalia.

While the lawsuit was dismissed in November because the sides agreed to settle, Snapchat said it had decided to take action in response to the litigation. It soon created a new tool, which Snapchat said it had been discussing for a while, that let publishers prevent Snapchat users who were under age 18 from seeing certain content.

When people sign up for Snapchat, they must enter their age and a phone number that is confirmed by the service. Snapchat also reserves the right to gate content for youngsters, even if a publisher has chosen not to do so.

In updating its publisher guidelines, Snapchat aimed to clarify vague language and provide more examples around its restrictions on the use of nudity, profanity and violent images.

The new rules more clearly state that publishers should not use overly sexualized or violent images as the initial visual that users are exposed to when they look at Discover and that content intended simply to shock or disgust is not allowed. Some exceptions are made for otherwise-forbidden material that has news value.

For the first time, the guidelines have a dedicated section detailing the warnings that publishers must run when graphic images are deemed newsworthy, as well as when to age-gate that content.

Some of these updates came out of conversations that began months ago with several publishers that routinely published racier content, including The Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan, as well as news services that published controversial images.

“We have been collaborating closely with all of our publishers, whose content has continued to evolve,” said Nick Bell, Snapchat’s vice president for content. “We want to be a great partner to all of our editorial partners, and updating our content guidelines to better reflect where our platform is today is an important part of that.”

One of the publishers that talked with Snapchat about the new rules was Sweet, a pop-culture channel created by the media company Hearst, which said its viewership on Discover had grown substantially over the past few months. Ross Clark, Sweet’s general manager and vice president, likened the updated guidelines to a parental advisory sticker on an album or to ratings on movies.

“The media industry has always included clearly established content guidelines,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s what allows a platform to have a large, diverse set of users.”