Sometimes, things make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, that’s the point.
So argues Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief of Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, after Facebook temporarily deleted a post containing an iconic Vietnam War photograph, and then deleted posts criticizing the initial photograph’s removal.
Hansen called out the censorship on Thursday in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that was widely shared. After intense criticism from media and Norwegian politicians, Facebook backed down Friday afternoon and said it would allow the photo to appear on the social network.
The saga started when reporter Tom Egeland shared a post last month that included a famous 1972 photo by Nick Ut, in which terrified Vietnamese children flee napalm bombs. One of them is a naked 9-year-old girl who is screaming in terror and pain. (The girl, Kim Phuc, survived, though she was badly burned).
Because the photo contains nudity, Facebook deleted the post.
According to Hansen, Egeland then wrote a post criticizing Facebook’s censorship, and in response was temporarily banned from the site. Facebook also censored a number of Norwegian officials, including prime minister Erna Solberg, who shared the photo on their pages.
In his letter, Hansen made a case for the free distribution of images, even disturbing ones.
“Mark, please try to envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas,” Hansen wrote. “Would you once again intercept the documentation of cruelties, just because a tiny minority might possibly be offended by images of naked children, or because a paedophile person somewhere might see the picture as pornography?”
“Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor,” he continued. “I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.”
Initially defending its decision, Facebook said it could not make exceptions for child nudity, regardless of the photo’s significance.
“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,” the company said in a statement obtained by Time.
But the social media giant reversed itself on Friday and said that it would allow the photo because of its historic significance.
“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,” a spokeswoman told The Huffington Post in a statement. “In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. 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. We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward.”
The spokeswoman noted that it would take a few days for the image to be fully visible across the site.
The incident is a stark reminder that Facebook wields tremendous power over media, despite Zuckerberg’s insistence last month that “we are a tech company, not a media company.”
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults ― 62 percent ― get their news from social media, according to a recent Pew study. That means Facebook has unprecedented control over who sees what and why. As the social media giant supplants other news sources, it must be held accountable for the information it chooses to distribute ― or not.
Media “have an important task in bringing information, even including pictures, which sometimes may be unpleasant, and which the ruling elite and maybe even ordinary citizens cannot bear to see or hear, but which might be important precisely for that reason,” Hansen argued.
He continued, “This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”