Not long after coming under fire for promoting fake news stories, Facebook found the spotlight again – this time for briefly censoring a historical war photo before hurriedly reinstating it after complaints.
The controversy began when Facebook removed a post by Norwegian author Tom Egeland, featuring Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of nine year-old Kim Phuc, naked and running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
A post by Aftenposten, a major Norwegian paper, slammed Facebook for censorship. And, a slightly less critical post by Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg was also removed by Facebook for using Ut’s image.
Facebook’s reasoning? Phuc’s nakedness violates community standards. In its initial statement, the company recognized the iconic nature of the photo but claimed “it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”
Facebook later retracted its censorship of the image but not before being criticized by newspaper outlets around the world for eschewing any editorial responsibility.
“I think you’re abusing your power,” said Aftenposten editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen in a front-page open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the paper.
Prime Minister Solberg reposted the image, this time self-censoring the photo with a large black box covering Phuc’s body. “What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history.”
Phuc herself, who survived the terrible attack shown in the photograph and eventually moved to Canada, commented on Facebook’s decision as well, saying “I’m saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys.”
A criticism laid on Facebook is that it is taking over editorial responsibility from news editors.
The debate over editorial responsibility stems not just from the censorship of Ut’s well-known and historically significant photo. In July, the company briefly removed a Facebook Live video depicting the shooting of Philando Castile at a traffic stop. In August, Facebook’s switch from human filtering to an algorithm to promote trending stories led to fake reports trending about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
The other sticking point for many in the media fell around Facebook’s insistence that it is a tech company, not a media company.
Facebook’s desire to remain known primarily as a tech company was pushed by Zuckerberg himself during a visit to Rome at the end of August.
“The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously,” said Zuckerberg.
However, that stance is not enough for those who feel whether Facebook likes it or not, they are acting as an editor when they filter the distribution of news.
Back at Aftenposten, Hansen put the sentiment to words in his open letter. “Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.”