Facebook Reverses Course After Censoring Iconic Vietnam Photo

Published: September 9, 2016 9:47 PM /


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Facebook has become the target of criticism after it removed an iconic Vietnam war image that was posted by a Norwegian author, and later a Norwegian newspaper. The photo of a naked girl running from a napalm attack was taken by Associate Press photographer Nick Ut, and is perhaps the most famous image associated with the war. Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg criticizing the censorship by Facebook.

A few weeks ago, Norwegian author Tom Egeland made a post on Facebook about seven photos which changed the history of warfare. The post included the aforementioned Vietnam photo. Facebook deleted the photo because it violated the site's guidelines. Kim Phuc, the woman who is in the photo, wrote her own criticism of the removal of the image, which was shared on Facebook by Egeland. The criticism contained the image as well, so it was also deleted by Facebook. Egeland was also banned from posting for 24 hours.

After the deletion of the image by Facebook, Aftenposten ran a story covering the censorship and posted the article on Facebook itself. Hansen received an email from Facebook stating that nudity violated the site's guidelines and was ordered to delete or pixelate the image. In less than 24 hours, before Hansen could write a response, Facebook deleted the article from the site.

Hansen states that he has no intention of obeying Facebook's request to remove the image, and will not obey any future requests. In the post, he calls Facebook a "world leading platform" and states that the social media platform is "hard to avoid" if newspapers want to get their message out. However, he decides that he must take a stand against the company for the sake of editorial freedom. He states,"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."

Hansen also criticizes Facebook for failing to live up to its mission statement, which is to "make the world more open and connected." He states, "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."

The censorship was also criticized Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. She told Reuters, "They must see the difference between editing out child pornography and editing out history. It's perfectly possible for a company like Facebook to sort this out. Otherwise we risk more censorship." Solberg protested the censorship by posting the Vietnam picture with a black square covering the girl. She then posted censored versions of many other historical photos, including one with a black square covering a man standing in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square. "I want my children and other children to grow up in a society where history is taught as it was," Solberg wrote on the social media site.

After facing harsh criticism, the social media company has decided to allow the image to be posted. "After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case, " Facebook stated. The company added that it recognized "the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time."

What do you think of this situation? Do you agree with Hansen? What responsibility do social media companies have to allow freedom of expression and encourage a free press? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.