Publishers who have been wringing their hands about Facebook and other platforms taking control of their audiences now have another matter, closely related, to worry about: censorship. This week the biggest newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten, published a scathing open letter to Mark Zuckerberg blasting Facebook’s decision to remove the world’s most famous war photographs, posted by the newspaper, due to the social network’s rules governing decency.
Aftenposten had posted the iconic photograph by Nick Ut – showing a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, crying as she flees a napalm attack with other children – as part of a series on history’s most moving war images. Facebook temporarily removed the photo because the girl appears (famously) nude, having torn off her burning clothing when her group of civilians was mistakenly attacked by the South Vietnamese air force.
When the post’s author, Tom Egeland, recorded a complaint by Kim Phuc herself about the censorship, Facebook blocked Egeland’s account and prevented him from posting any new entries.
In his letter to Zuckerberg, Aftenposten editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen wrote that “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid - of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.” Hansen then summed up the accusations in a damning passage: “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.”
Despite this, Hansen readily conceded the mostly positive relationship publishers have with Facebook, while emphasizing that the social network should stick to social networking: “Facebook has become a world-leading platform for spreading information, for debate and for social contact between persons. You have gained this position because you deserve it. But, dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor. Even for a major player like Aftenposten, Facebook is hard to avoid. In fact we don’t really wish to avoid you, because you are offering us a great channel for distributing our content. We want to reach out with our journalism.”
Nonetheless, Hansen concluded: “I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly… 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. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”The Norwegian culture minister, Linda Helleland, has urged Facebook execs to meet with Norwegian newspaper editors to discuss censorship and related issues. The Norwegian Press Association is also petitioning the country’s powerful sovereign wealth fund, which invests the proceeds from North Sea oil sales, to consider selling its 0.5% stake in Facebook, valued at around $2 billion.