Facebook has decided to allow users to share an iconic Vietnam war photo featuring a naked girl after CEO Mark Zuckerberg was accused of abusing his power when the social media company censored the image.
Norway’s largest newspaper published a front-page open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, slamming Facebook’s decision to censor the historic photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phúc running away from a napalm attack and calling on the CEO to live up to his role as “the world’s most powerful editor”.
Facebook initially defended its decision to remove the image, saying: “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.”
On Friday, following widespread criticisms from news organizations and media experts across the globe, Facebook reversed its decision, saying in a statement to the Guardian: “After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”
The statement continued: “Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed.”
Facebook also said it would “adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward”. The company said the image would be available for sharing “in the coming days” and that it is “always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe”.
Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, had accused Zuckerberg of thoughtlessly “abusing your power” over the social media site that has become a key distributer of news around the globe. He wrote: “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.”
The controversy stems from Facebook’s decision to delete a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland that featured The Terror of War, a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut that showed children, including Phúc, fleeing an attack. Egeland’s post discussed “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare” – a group to which the “napalm girl” image certainly belongs.
The controversy has erupted at a time of increasing tensions between media organizations and Facebook, the site where 44% of US adults get their news.
Facebook faced scrutiny in May after it was revealed that its “trending” section was deliberately suppressing articles from conservative news organizations. In response, Zuckerberg personally reached out to top conservatives.
After the Aftenposten spat this week, the Facebook controversy expanded when it removed a post by Erna Solberg, Norway’s conservative leader, who published the image and called on the company to “review its editing policy”.
Solberg said it was “highly regrettable” that the technology corporation had meddled with her Facebook page – an attempt, she wrote, to “edit our common history”.
“I wish today’s children will also have the opportunity to see and learn from historical mistakes and events. This is important,” she wrote, adding that the post had vanished while she was on a plane.
Phúc, who now lives in Canada with her husband and two children, piled on further pressure with her own powerful statement, saying: “I’m saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys. I fully support the documentary image taken by Nick Ut as a moment of truth that capture the horror of war and its effects on innocent victims.”
In his open letter, Hansen wrote: “You are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility. This is what you and your subordinates are doing in this case.”
“I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.”
For good measure, Hansen put the photo on Aftenposten’s front-page. He also invoked George Orwell, and Orwell’s famous preface to Animal Farm, which said that if liberty means anything it means “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
In scathing terms, Hansen went on: “Each editor must weigh the pros and cons [of publication]. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”
By Friday the internet saw a mini-insurrection, with defiant Facebook users sharing the photo in a protest against apparent ham-fisted censorship. Some 180,000 people used Facebook to view the Guardian’s account of the row – illustrated, paradoxically, with the same uncensored photo. Another 4,000 shared it on Facebook.
In its Friday statement, Facebook further said it would be reaching out to publishers to discuss the debate.
Solberg wasn’t the only Norwegian politician who weighed in on the dispute. Half of her cabinet also shared the photo, stressing the importance of freedom of expression and the need to preserve historical memory.
This isn’t the first time the world’s most popular social networking – with 1.65 billion users – has found itself at the losing end of freedom of speech controversies. In 2008, the company provoked a backlash from breast-feeding mothers after outlawing images featuring nipples. Facebook says its goal is simple: to stop pornography and abuse.
Others including Hansen have suggested a possible way forward, which would see Facebook differentiating its rules on content according to region. It should further “distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users”, Hansen said, declaring: “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.”
The reaction from freedom of speech campaigners, meanwhile, was blunt. Speaking before Facebook’s U-turn, Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, dubbed its behavior “absolutely idiotic”.
Additional reporting by Alice Ross and Ashifa Kassam
This article was written by Sam Levin and Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco and Luke Harding in London, for theguardian.com on Friday 9th September 2016 18.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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