Facebook blasted for censoring iconic Vietnam War photo

Update: Facebook changed its mind. See updated story here.

What was Facebook thinking?!?

Increasingly known as Top Editor in Chief as it continues to decide what’s news and what’s not, the Menlo Park-based social-media giant is under fire around the world this morning for its latest bit of editorializing:

The company has censored one of the most powerful and iconic photographs to come out of the Vietnam War.

And the fallout has been immediate, searing and global, starting with Norway’s largest newspaper on Friday publishing a front-page open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his outrageous meddling in the narrative of recent human history.

Blasting Facebook’s decision to demand the removal of the photo of the naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc, shot as she’s running away from a napalm attack during the height of the war, Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, accused Zuckerberg of thoughtlessly “abusing your power.”

And that “power” has been in the spotlight in recent months as Facebook continues to exert outsize influence over what constitutes news for its billions of users.

“I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society,” Hansen wrote in his editorial, demanding that Zuckerberg recognize and live up to his role as “the world’s most powerful editor.”

As The Guardian reports, the brouhaha started when Facebook caught wind of a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland which included the “The Terror of War.” The photo by Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize after he shot it on June 8, 1972, shows children, including Phúc, in a terrifying run for their lives. Some of the kids were clothed, but Phuc was not. In his post, Egeland talked about it in the context of the  “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare.”

The so-called “napalm girl” image was among them.

After Egeland was eighty-sixed from Facebook, Aftenposten wrote about the suspension and used the same photo as Egeland had, an image that’s become a universal symbol of the horrors of war, especially for children caught in the middle of the violence.

That article was then shared on the newspaper’s Facebook page and a short time later the paper was told by Facebook to “either remove or pixelize” the photograph.

The notice from Facebook was clear, reading in part: “Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed”

And the battle was on.

Before Hansen could even respond, the social network had wiped out both the article in question and the image from the site.

Hansen continued his attack on Zuckerberg, saying “I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way.”

In his letter, Hansen says Facebook’s decision belies a worrisome inability to “distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs,” as well as an unwillingness to “allow[ing] space for good judgement.”

“Even though I am editor-in-chief of Norway’s largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility,” he wrote. “I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.”

Hansen goes on to argue that rather than fulfill its mission statement to “make the world more open and connected,” such editorial decisions “will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other.”

Responding to inquiries from the Guardian, a spokesman for Facebook said, “While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”

“We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.”

This is just the latest example of Facebook stepping in it when it comes to trying to edit, censor, shape and sculpt “the news” for the social-media network’s staggering presence around the globe.

There was the time that a Facebook algorithm highlighted a fake story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. And newspaper publishers have been struggling lately with an uneasy alliance with Facebook as the company gains more and more power to use their content in ways that could help or hurt the publishers.

Photo: The historic photo from the Vietnam war that was censored. (Nick Ut/AP)


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  • Gaby Papid

    The topic is about if Facebook is a publisher, and then ultimately does it actively censor via the Algo. And you have to ask Can We Make The Web More Ehtical…… which is what these Swedish guys at Netopia did right here………. http://www.netopia.eu/new-report-can-we-make-the-digital-world-ethical/

  • Dave

    Facebook is moving in the direction of pro communist style censorship. Keep it up Zuckerberg and pretty soon the PRC will officially welcome your social media platform.

  • C’mon – give it up. You’re talking to a spoiled brat. Find some real media.