Written by John Lounsbury
This week Facebook requested removal and then pre-emptively took down a nude picture of a child. This certainly sounds like a wise move on the face of what you would know from the statement made in the previous sentence. But, it turns out that it did not turn out quite that way
It turns out that the photo was one of the most famous iconic photographs of the Vietnam War. The shot depicted screaming Vietnamese children fleeing in terror from a napalm bombing. One of the children, possibly 7 or 8 years old, was nude girl who has been known through the decades since as “the napalm girl“.
The photograph had been on Facebook by Espen Egil Hansen, Editor in Chief of the Norwegian daily newspaper, Aftenposten. On Thursday (with an update Friday) Mr. Hansen published an open letter in his paper regarding the incident. Below we have reproduced the English version of the article:
Dear Mark. I am writing this to inform you that I shall not comply with your requirement to remove this picture.
Oppdatert: 09.sep.2016 20:52
Publisert: 08.sep.2016 21:33
Dear Mark Zuckerberg.
I follow you on Facebook, but you don’t know me. I am editor-in-chief of the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. I am writing this letter to inform you that I shall not comply with your requirement to remove a documentary photography from the Vietnam war made by Nick Ut.
Not today, and not in the future.
The demand that we remove the picture came in an e-mail from Facebook’s office in Hamburg this Wednesday morning. Less than 24 hours after the e-mail was sent, and before I had time to give my response, you intervened yourselves and deleted the article as well as the image from Aftenposten’s Facebook page.
To be honest, I have no illusions that you will read this letter. The reason why I will still make this attempt, is that I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.
Take part in the debate on Twitter and Facebook: #dearmark
First some background. A few weeks ago the Norwegian author Tom Egeland posted an entry on Facebook about, and including, seven photographs that changed the history of warfare. You in turn removed the picture of a naked Kim Phuc, fleeing from the napalm bombs – one of the world’s most famous war photographs.
Tom then rendered Kim Phuc’s criticism against Facebook for banning her picture. Facebook reacted by excluding Tom and prevented him from posting a new entry.
Listen, Mark, this is serious. 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 judgement. Finally you even censor criticism against and a discussion about the decision – and you punish the person who dares to voice criticism.
Aftenposten’s Editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen. Aftenposten/Nick Ut
Facebook is for the pleasure and benefit of the whole world, myself included, on a number of levels. I myself, for instance, keep in touch with my brothers via a closed group centered on our 89 year old father. Day by day we share joys and concerns.
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.
Aftenposten’s print front page Friday.
However, even though I am editor-in-chief of Norway’s largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility. This is what you and your subordinates are doing in this case.
I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.
Let me return to the picture I mentioned by Nick Ut. The napalm-girl is by far the most iconic documentary photography from the Vietnam war. The media played a decisive role in reporting different stories about the war than the men in charge wanted them to publish. They brought about a change of attitude which played a role in ending the war. They contributed to a more open, more critical debate. This is how a democracy must function.
The free and independent media have an important task in bringing information, even including pictures, which sometimes may be unpleasant, and which the ruling elite and maybe even ordinary citizens cannot bear to see or hear, but which might be important precisely for that reason.
Â«If liberty means anything at all, British George Orwell wrote in the preface to Animal Farm, Â«it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.Â»
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 original post on Aftenposten’s Facebook page. Skjermdump
Mark, please try to envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas. Would you once again intercept the documentation of cruelties, just because a tiny minority might possibly be offended by images of naked children, or because a paedophile person somewhere might see the picture as pornography?
Facebook’s Mission Statement states that your objective is to “make the world more open and connected”.
In reality you are doing this in a totally superficial sense.
If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other.
To pretend that it is possible to create common, global rules for what may and what may not be published, only throws dust into peoples’ eyes.
We have not established the timeline so we do not know whether Facebook took further action before they read this letter, but The Wall Street Journal reported Friday (last update at 3:07 pm EDT) that Facebook had reversed the decision to ban the napalm girl photo. But before that happened, according to the WSJ, Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway posted a protest on Facebook, which included the photo:
“Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such images. I say no to this type of censorship.”
Hours later, Ms. Solberg’s post – which included the image – disappeared from her account.
But now Facebook is flooded with posts of the photo from hundreds, maybe even thousands, of sources, ranging from individuals to major news services. To see the latest lineup, click here.