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You Need to Care About Facebook Censoring an Iconic Vietnam War Photo

Whether or not you use Facebook, it's important to be aware of the misjudgement and questionable censorship happening at scale.

Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phúc fleeing from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war is one of the most iconic pieces of photojournalism in existence.

The importance of Ut's 1972 photograph cannot be underestimated. The image was instrumental in exposing to the rest of the world what was happening in Vietnam. Some argue, including Ut himself, that this photograph alone was a turning point in the conflict. The photograph galvanized opposition to the war.

But this week, Facebook decided that the image breached the social network's terms of service. Facebook banned a user who published the photograph, and then subsequently ordered a newspaper to also remove the photograph from its Facebook page, sparking uproar over the social network's control of media.

Today, Facebook has deleted a further post featuring the photograph by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who joined in on the swelling debate regarding the censorship of the photograph. Solberg was one of many politicians who decided to share the image in the wake of the original incident. (Update: After a flood of critical media posts, Facebook has allowed the image to be reposted.)

Whether or not you use Facebook, it's important to be aware of the misjudgement and questionable censorship happening at scale

The entire debacle not only shows Facebook's opaque and haphazard approach to removing graphic content—the company has said it's too hard to distinguish between one of the most notable photographs of the 20th century and child pornography—but also shows how users cannot currently trust Facebook to deliver important or potentially-controversial news without the risk of censorship or bias.

War is graphic and horrific, as are many things in the world; news organizations perpetually grapple with defining the line between informing their readers of the reality of atrocities and sharing violence that does not inform or is purely for shock value. Facebook's censorship of a 44-year-old prize-winning photo suggests that the company still has a phenomenally reductive understanding of this responsibility, despite its incredible influence over the world's news readership.

The whole debacle started earlier this week when Norwegian writer Tom Egeland posted a story onto Facebook that included Nick Ut's photo, featured in a piece analysing photographs of warfare.

Facebook then removed the image, claiming that the photo was in breach of its terms of service. "Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed," Facebook explained. Egeland was then suspended from using Facebook for 24 hours.

Norwegian national newspaper Aftenposten caught on to the incident, and published an article detailing Facebook's suspension of Egeland. Aftenposten shared the article on its Facebook page, which also featured Ut's photo. The newspaper subsequently received its own message from Facebook demanding that the photograph be removed or pixelized.

On Thursday, the editor-in-chief of Aftenposten then ran a front page open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, pleading with "the world's most powerful editor" to make changes to Facebook's news policies.

"I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly," Aftenposten editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen 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 added. "This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California."

The incident highlights the immense quandary Facebook finds itself in as both the most powerful distributor of the world's media and an inconsistent gatekeeper to sensitive, graphic, or otherwise potentially-objectionable content—two things that necessarily overlap in a free press charged with reporting on the ills of the world.

For example, in July, Facebook controversially removed a "Facebook Live" video of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile. The video was later restored with an added "graphic content" disclaimer, but the decision by Facebook to stem the viral spread of such a video is a clear indicator the gatekeeping role Zuckerberg wants to play. That incident was just one of many cases where Facebook has shown poor judgement on the censorship of important news events. Others include the removal of photos of cancer survivors, and interfering in democratic political discussions. That's not to mention the consistent promotion of false news stories through the company's "Trending Topics" module following the removal of human editors.

Whether or not you use Facebook, it's important to be aware of the misjudgement and questionable censorship happening at scale on the social network. Facebook has again overstepped its role of news aggregator to gatekeeper, and has simply proved that its ongoing role as one of the world's largest news disseminators must be regarded with suspicion, if not cynicism.