Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been accused of “abusing” his power by the editor of a Norwegian newspaper after Facebook censored posts from the newspaper and a Norwegian author containing the iconic “Napalm Girl” photo from the Vietnam war.
Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, posted a scathing front-page letter directed at the Facebook CEO on Friday, accusing him of failing to take the social network’s editorial responsibilities as a media organisation seriously, risking dangerous consequences for democracy.
“I am upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society,” writes editor Epsen Egil Hansen.
At issue is an iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken in 1972 by photographer Nick Ut, depicting Vietnamese children fleeing in terror from a US napalm strike in the midst of the brutal Vietnam war. Its central subject, the 9-year-old Kim Phuc, is naked.
It is, as Hansen points out, “by far the most iconic documentary photography from the Vietnam war’ — and one of the most famous photos of all time.
But when a Norwegian author, Tom Egeland, wrote a Facebook post about “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare” which included the photo, the photo was deleted, and he was subsequently suspended from the social network.
Then, when Aftenposten shared a news story to Facebook that used the photo, an email from Facebook demanded that the newspaper removed the post — before the social network went ahead and deleted it itself, before the newspaper could respond.
“I think you are abusing your power”
“Listen, Mark, this is serious,” Hansen writes in the open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. “First you create rules that don’t distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs. Then you practice these rules without allowing space for good judgment. Finally you even censor criticism against and a discussion about the decision — and you punish the person who dares to voice criticism.”
He goes on: “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.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment, though a spokesperson told The Guardian that “while we recognise 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 … We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.”
Facebook: Media company or technology platform — or both?
Is Facebook a media company? It’s a controversial issue.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies this is the case, recently insisting that “no, we are a tech company, not a media company,” adding: “The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.”
However, many others beg to differ. Facebook is now the global dominant channel for online news distribution, its opaque algorithms feeding up to its users articles and posts that they might find interesting. The social network and the collective news business are in a strange love-hate relationship: The media is reliant on Facebook for a huge proportion of their traffic, but they simultaneously directly compete against the company for advertising dollars.
The changes Facebook makes to its algorithms (to favour “informative” content or punish clickbait, say) are fundamentally editorial decisions that affect what more than a billion people do (or don’t) see, the argument goes, equivalent to the kind of calls an editor of a newspaper would make.
The debate came to a head earlier this year, when Gizmodo posted an explosive story in which Facebook contractors alleged that the social network censored conservative news from its “Trending” section, a semi-algorithmic, semi-curated collection of stories trending on social media. Facebook came under heavy criticism, and ultimately fired the entire Trending Topics team.
Epsen Hansen subscribes to the position that Facebook is a media company — and Mark Zuckerberg is its editor.
“Dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor,” he writes. “The free and independent 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 … This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”
Epsen goes on: “Please try to envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas. 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? … If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other.”
“I have written this letter to you because I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom in stead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way. But I am also writing — and I hope you will understand this — because I take a positive attitude to the possibilities that Facebook has opened up. I only hope that you will utilise the possibilities in a better way.”