Facebook restores iconic Vietnam War photo it censored for nudity

Aftenposten's editor-in-chief and CEO Espen Egil Hansen poses with the day's edition of Aftenposten featuring the iconic picture from the Vietnam war, taken by Nick Ut on Sept 9, 2016.
Aftenposten's editor-in-chief and CEO Espen Egil Hansen poses with the day's edition of Aftenposten featuring the iconic picture from the Vietnam war, taken by Nick Ut on Sept 9, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - 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 been used countless times to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare.

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 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 Friday (Sept 9) with an act of virtual civil disobedience by posting the image of 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 Friday. “In this case, we recognise 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 labelled 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 Zuckerberg, Espen Egil Hansen, 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,” Hansen, whose newspaper has a print circulation of 200,000, said in an interview Friday. “Tomorrow, there will be another photo. Facebook will have to respond to that.” Phuc did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nick Ut, the photographer who took the iconic image for The Associated Press, was travelling; 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.

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 apologised 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 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 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 authorised to speak publicly.

After Egeland criticised 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, Egeland said he had been barred from Facebook for another three days.

Hansen of Aftenposten, taking a stand on behalf of 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. Hansen said he received an email 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,” Solberg wrote in her post.

Yet soon after 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 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.

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!’”