If you were to pick a handful of images that changed how people think about war, Nick Ut’s most famous photograph would surely be among them. The image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running from napalm—her skin burning, her clothes burned away—defined the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Norwegian author Tom Egeland had the lasting power of Ut’s work in mind when he shared the photo to Facebook weeks ago. But when Facebook’s moderators saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning image, they saw not its documentary significance or its impact on the world, but a violation of the site’s nudity policy.
Facebook’s moderators removed the photograph from Egeland’s page, along with its accompanying text. His account was suspended for 24 hours after he shared an interview with Phuc criticizing Facebook’s decision to censor this image, he said. But that was just the beginning of the incredible outrage at Facebook that has swept across Norway in recent days, becoming the subject of an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from Norway’s largest newspaper, and rising all the way up to the country’s prime minister.
After initially defending its decision to remove the photograph, Facebook decided to “reinstate” the image on Friday afternoon, according to a written statement from a Facebook spokeswoman. “We recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time,” the statement reads. “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.”
The company said it would “adjust our review mechanisms” to permit the sharing of the image in the future, but that the change could take “days” to fully go into effect for all users.
Facebook has increasingly found itself under scrutiny for its influential role in the distribution of news across the world. According to Pew, 44% of the general population in the United States say they get their news from Facebook. While Zuckerberg recently said that Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company,” this incident highlights just how much control the platform can wield over what media its users do (and don’t) see.
Espen Egil Hansen, the editor of Aftenposten—Norway’s largest paper—called Zuckerberg the “world’s most powerful editor” in an open letter to Zuckerberg protesting Facebook’s censorship of the photo, which was published on Friday morning.
“I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly,” he wrote.
The outrage in Norway escalated when Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the image to her own Facebook page on Friday, after the publication of Aftenposten’s letter. “Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such pictures. It limits the freedom of speech,” she wrote in an accompanying statement that was translated by Reuters. “I say yes to healthy, open and free debate—online and wherever else we go. But I say no to this form of censorship.”
Solberg’s post, along with the statement, then disappeared. A spokesman for the prime minister’s office confirmed that she “did not remove it” herself from her own page—instead, Facebook deleted it.
She later reposted the image—censoring Phuc’s entire body with a large black box—and called on Facebook to reconsider its policies. She paired the censored version of Ut’s work with several other censored versions of iconic photos, writing, “What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history.”
Aftenposten ran its direct address letter to Zuckerberg on the front page of its paper. “I am writing this letter to inform you that I shall not comply with your requirement to remove a documentary photography from the Vietnam war made by Nick Ut. Not today, and not in the future,” Hansen, the paper’s editor, wrote.
“The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons,” Hansen wrote. “This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”
“With over 1.5 billion users, Facebook’s ability to shape views and outlooks is unprecedented,” said Matthew Stender, a project strategist for the social media censorship tracking project, Onlinecensorship.org. Stender expressed concern that Facebook’s increasing importance to the distribution of journalism could eventually allow Facebook to “impose their community guidelines as an arbitrary and puritanical basis for what type of content can be included (and excluded) from journalism published exclusively on the platform.”
The company encountered questions about its ability to handle disturbing but newsworthy content this July, when Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to broadcast the dying moments of Philando Castile, after he was shot by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop. The video was removed from Facebook shortly after it posted, eventually returning to the site with a “graphic content” warning.
Hansen reported that Facebook asked the paper this week to either remove or pixelate Ut’s work from one of its own articles on Wednesday morning, after the paper had reported on Egeland’s suspension from the platform.
“We place limitations on the display of nudity to limit the exposure of the different people using our platform to sensitive content,” the note from Facebook, published alongside Aftenposten’s open letter, reads. “Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breasts, will be removed.”
Instead of pixelating or removing the image as requested, Hansen wrote that Facebook was “restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility. This is what you and your subordinates are doing in this case.”
By Friday afternoon, Facebook had reversed its position. Here is Facebook’s full explanation for its new stance: “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. 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. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days. 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.”
Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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