Norwayâ€™s largest newspaper published a front-page letter to the Facebook CEO lambasting the companyâ€™s decision to censor a photograph of the Vietnam war
Norwayâ€™s largest newspaper has published a front-page open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, lambasting the companyâ€™s decision to censor a historic photograph of the Vietnam war and calling on Zuckerberg to recognize and live up to his role as â€œthe worldâ€™s most powerful editorâ€.
Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, accused Zuckerberg of thoughtlessly â€œabusing your powerâ€ over the social media site that has become a lynchpin of the distribution of news and information around the world, writing, â€œI am upset, disappointed â€“ well, in fact even afraid â€“ of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.â€
â€œI am worried that the worldâ€™s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,â€ he added.
The controversy stems from Facebookâ€™s decision to delete a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland that featured The Terror of War, a Pulitzer prize-winningÂ photograph by Nick Ut that showed children â€“ including the naked 9-year-old Kim PhÃºc â€“ running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. Egelandâ€™s post discussed â€œseven photographs that changed the history of warfareâ€ â€“ a group to which the â€œnapalm girlâ€ image certainly belongs.
Egeland was subsequently suspended from Facebook. When Aftenposten reported on the suspension â€“ using the same photograph in its article, which was then shared on the publicationâ€™s Facebook page â€“ the newspaper received a message from Facebook asking it to â€œeither remove or pixelizeâ€ the photograph.
â€œAny photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed,â€ the notice from FacebookÂ explains.
Before Aftenposten could respond, Hansen writes, Facebook deleted the article and image from the newspaperâ€™s Facebook page.
In his open letter, Hansen points out that Facebookâ€™s decision to delete the photograph reveals a troubling inability to â€œdistinguish between child pornography and famous war photographsâ€, as well as an unwillingness to â€œallow[ing] space for good judgementâ€.
â€œEven though I am editor-in-chief of Norwayâ€™s largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility,â€ he wrote. â€œI think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.â€
Hansen goes on to argue that rather than fulfill its mission statement to â€œmake the world more open and connectedâ€, such editorial decisions â€œwill simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each otherâ€.
The Aftenposten editorial comes at a time of scrutiny on Facebook for its ever-increasing dominance in the dissemination of news.
News organizations are uncomfortably reliant on Facebook to reach an online audience. According to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 44% of US adults get their news on Facebook.
Facebookâ€™s popularity means that its algorithms can exert enormous power over public opinion.
A May 2016 report by Gizmodo that Facebookâ€™s trending bar was deliberately suppressing articles from conservative news sites set off a firestorm that saw Zuckerberg making personal outreach to top conservatives.
Facebook recently fired the team of editors who managed the trending topics section, choosing to replace them with algorithms that quickly demonstrated the difficulty of automating news editorial judgment by promoting a fake news story.
In his open letter, Hansen points out that the types of decision Facebook makes about what kind of content is promoted, tolerated, or banned â€“ whether it makes those decisions algorithmically or not â€“ are functionally editorial.
â€œThe media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case,â€ he wrote. â€œThis right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.â€
â€œEditors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.â€
Speaking in Rome last month, ZuckerbergÂ addressed the question of Facebookâ€™s role in the news media and appeared to downplay his editorial responsibilities.
â€œWe are a tech company, not a media company,â€ he said. â€œThe world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.â€
Hansenâ€™s suggestions for Facebook to improve its behavior include â€œgeographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publicationâ€, â€œdistinguish[ing] between editors and other Facebook users,â€ and a â€œcomprehensive review of the way you operateâ€.
He also called for increased accessibility from the company, writing, â€œToday, 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.â€
â€œWhile we recognize that this photo is iconic, itâ€™s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others,â€ a spokesman for Facebook said in response to queries from the Guardian.
â€œWe 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 wonâ€™t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.â€
ByÂ Julia Carrie Wong