Espen Egil Hansen, editor in chief of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, criticized Facebook for deleting a post that included Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked girl fleeing napalm during the Vietnam War. Credit Stein J. Bjorge/Aftenpost
The image is iconic: A naked, 9-year-old girl fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War, tears streaming down her face. The picture from 1972, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, has since been used countless times to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare, according to an NYT report by By Mark Scott and Mike Isaacsept.
But for Facebook, the image of the girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was one that violated its standards about nudity on the social network. So after a Norwegian author posted images about the terror of war with the photo to Facebook, the company removed it, the report adds.
The move triggered a backlash over how Facebook was censoring images. When a Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, cried foul over the takedown of the picture, thousands of people globally responded on Friday with an act of virtual civil disobedience by posting the image of Ms. Phuc on their Facebook pages and, in some cases, daring the company to act. Hours after the pushback, Facebook reinstated the photo across its site.
“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,” Facebook said in a statement on Friday. “In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”
The reversal underscores Facebook’s increasingly tricky position as an arbiter of mass media. While the social network has resisted being labeled a media entity — its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, recently told a group of Italian university students that Facebook is a “tech company, not a media company” — many used the Vietnam War photo uproar to call upon the Silicon Valley behemoth to acknowledge its control over the articles, videos and images that people consume.
“Mark Zuckerberg can resist the definition all he wants, claiming Facebook is a white hot tech company, not a media company,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “But it is now possible for a company to be both.”
In an open letter to Mr. Zuckerberg, Espen Egil Hansen, the editor in chief of Aftenposten, said Facebook played a dominant role in how people around the world view information and that it should not set limits on what types of journalism could be seen online.
“Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor in chief in the world,” Mr. Hansen, whose newspaper has a print circulation of 200,000, said in an interview on Friday. “Tomorrow, there will be another photo. Facebook will have to respond to that.”
Ms. Phuc did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nick Ut, the photographer who took the iconic image for The Associated Press, was traveling; the news agency said it was “proud of the photo.”
“We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.
The frequency with which Facebook needs to respond to questions over its media role has increased over the past 18 months. In May, the company had to grapple with reports that some editors working on its “Trending Topics” section — a portion of the site in which Facebook displays some of the most-talked-about stories on the network — were suppressing conservative political content.
Facebook last month laid off the Trending Topics team and said it would rely solely on algorithmic decision-making to surface trending stories across the site. In the weeks since, some have called for Facebook to rethink that stance, as several fake news stories have more prominently appeared in the section.
A.J. Chavar, a New York Times journalist, reposted the Times’s article about Facebook removing posts including the Vietnam War-era photo showing a naked girl escaping napalm bombing. Facebook quickly removed Mr. Chavar’s post, citing Facebook community standards that restrict the display of nudity. Credit AJ Chavar
Last year, Facebook also had to revise its community standards after photos of women breast-feeding were removed from their Facebook pages. And the company apologized in May after it blocked a photo of a plus-size model for being “undesirable.”
Facebook’s editorial influence reaches far beyond Trending Topics. The company, with 1.71 billion members worldwide, is continuously refining and updating the algorithms that control the News Feed, the stream of status updates, news articles, photos and videos that most of its users spend the most time interacting with. Those changes affect the type of content people see more frequently — photos from friends and family, for instance, instead of news stories — which can have an effect on what people are sharing across the network.
Many of the world’s largest publishers, from The New York Times and The Guardian to Vice and BuzzFeed, also increasingly rely on Facebook to communicate with the social network’s users. A growing number of media companies and analysts have raised concerns that Facebook may hold too much sway over how information is distributed.
Almost half of American adults rely on Facebook as a source of news, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
The commotion over the photo of Ms. Phuc, also known as the Napalm Girl picture, began when Tom Egeland, a Norwegian author, wrote a Facebook post in August that included seven photographs about the history of warfare. One of those was the image of Ms. Phuc, which was then removed by Facebook, citing its standards policy.
Facebook uses a combination of algorithms and human moderators to review photos that can potentially break its rules. In this case, the photo was tagged for removal by one of Facebook’s algorithms, which was then followed up by a human editor, according to a person at the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly.
After Mr. Egeland criticized the removal of his post, he was barred from posting on Facebook for 24 hours. On Wednesday, after he republished the photo on his Facebook page, Mr. Egeland said he had been barred from Facebook for another three days.
Mr. Hansen of Aftenposten, taking a stand on behalf of Mr. Egeland, asked his journalists to report on the author’s case this week and also posted the Vietnam War photo on the newspaper’s own Facebook page. Mr. Hansen said he received an email on Wednesday from the social network requesting that the image be taken down. Before he could respond, he said Facebook removed the newspaper’s post without asking permission.
On Friday, Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, and cabinet ministers also posted the Vietnam War photo on their Facebook pages in a show of solidarity. “Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such images,” Ms. Solberg wrote in her post.
Yet soon after Ms. Solberg published that Facebook post, the social network also removed it, citing the company’s standards policy.
When the picture’s takedown went viral, the photo went into wide circulation on the social network, including on the Facebook page of Mr. Ut, the photographer. Facebook later said it would take some time for the photo and posts that contained it to reappear across the site, perhaps as much as a few days.
Mr. Egeland, the Norwegian author whose Facebook post kicked off the global protest, said the company’s reversal underlined how people can come together to force a tech giant to change its ways — even though he could still not post on his own Facebook page until his three-day exile expired.
“I hope that Facebook realized that this was a mistake,” he said in an interview. “I would love to go online right now and publish, ‘We won!’”
-NYT/The Educationist Monitoring