Norway is furious with Facebook and its algorithms for “censoring” an iconic war photo

Loud and clear.
Loud and clear.
Image: Cornelius Poppe/NTB Scanpix and Reuters
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A ruckus has erupted in Norway over Facebook’s repeated removal of an iconic 1972 war photograph of a naked young girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. Facebook has also suspended users who uploaded it. Things have come to a head today after Norway’s largest newspaper devoted its front page to an open letter to Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

The letter, written by Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, accuses Zuckerberg of “abusing” his role as ”the world’s most powerful editor.” Hansen wrote: ”The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility … This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, also posted the iconic photo to her Facebook page today (Sept. 9) to protest “censorship” by the social network. “I say yes to a healthy, open and free debate on the internet,” she wrote in Norwegian. “But I say no to this form of censorship.” Her photo was later removed by Facebook, according to a subsequent post by Solberg. She posted a version of the photo with nudity blacked out. “What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history,” she wrote.

The Norwegian prime minister’s new post, featuring a blacked-out version of the iconic photo.
The Norwegian prime minister’s new post, featuring a blacked-out version of the iconic photo.
Image: Erna Solberg

Update: Following the outcry, Facebook reinstated the Vietnam photo. In a statement, the social media company said, ”After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case,” according to Reuters. The company said it recognized “the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

The issue began more than two weeks ago when the best-selling Norwegian author Tom Egeland wrote a Facebook post about the “photographs that changed the history of warfare,” according to The Guardian. One of the photos Egeland included in his piece was “The Terror of War,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that shows a naked 9-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and other children fleeing napalm bombing during the Vietnam War, their faces distended in terror. The photo was removed for violating Facebook’s policy on nudity, then Egeland’s account was suspended for 24 hours. “It is absolutely absurd,” he told the Verdens Gang newspaper (in Norwegian).

A journalism association and other newspapers posted the photo to Facebook to protest the platform’s rules, the Local reported, only to have their images removed too. Aftenposten posted the photo to its Facebook page, linking to its article on Egeland’s suspension. It promptly received an email from a Facebook office in Hamburg asking it to “remove or pixelize” the photo.

Before Hansen could respond to the Facebook warning, the platform removed the offending post from the Aftenposten Facebook page. There was little recourse for Aftenposten, Hansen wrote, and little accountability from Facebook. He described the experience of dealing with the Silicon Valley tech behemoth: ”Today, if it is possible at all to get in touch with a Facebook representative, the best one may hope for are brief, formalistic answers, with rigid references to universal rules and guidelines. If you take the liberty to challenge Facebook’s rules, you will be met–as we have seen–with censorship. And if someone will protest against the censorship, he will be punished, as Tom Egeland was.”

Facebook’s policy on nudity acknowledges that its system can be “more blunt” than intended, although it doesn’t go into detail about how, precisely, that system operates. Its community standards page explains:

In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards.

The Norway furore is the latest crack in the conceit that Facebook is not a media company–which Zuckerberg insists is the case. In May, its Trending feature, which highlights certain news stories, triggered a row in the US after Gizmodo reported that Facebook asked editors to inject political bias into the results. About two weeks ago we reported that it fired its entire Trending editorial staff, then the company endured internet mockery after its algorithm selected and prominently displayed a fake news item.

Zuckerberg has said Facebook is a technology company that “builds the tools,” not the content. Yet Facebook has already shown it has trouble distinguishing between “sensitive content” and photos of breastfeeding mothers, authentic news items and fake news, and a Pulitzer-winning photo and pornography. A dose of editorial judgment might make those tools work better.

This story was updated after Facebook reinstated the Vietnam photo.