What started as an innocent cryptic social media black and white selfies craze at the beginning of August has now turned ugly on Facebook and gone political.
Facebook has been heavily criticised by Norway for abusing its power through censorship in its platform.
As response, Facebook deleted a post this morning by the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg, who intervened on Friday by defending a famous black and white war photograph that had “shaped world history”, entitled The Terror of War featuring the naked nine-year-old Kim Phúc running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
The deleted Solberg’s post said, “I appreciate the work Facebook and other media do to stop content and pictures showing abuse and violence … But Facebook is wrong when they censor such images.”
She went on to say the website’s decision “helps to curb freedom of expression”, adding: “I say no to this form of censorship.”
During this writing, the Prime Minister posted a response to the post deletion and called on Facebook to “review its editing policy” after it deleted her post voicing support for a Norwegian newspaper that had fallen foul of the social media giant’s guidelines.
“While I was on a plane from Oslo to Trondheim, Facebook deleted a post from my Facebook page”.
“What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history”.
“I hope that Facebook uses this opportunity to review its editing policy, and assumes the responsibility a large company that manages a broad communication platform should take”.
“I want my children and other children to grow up in a society where history is taught as it was. Where they can learn from historical events and mistakes”.
“Today, pictures are such an important element in making an impression, that if you edit past events or people, you change history and you change reality”, she wrote.
Like the #Icebucketchallenge, the trend was started by someone with good intentions of raising awareness but the message has been lost as it gone viral. The hashtag #challengeacceptedblackandwhite is not affiliated with any major charity and donations or any sort of action aren’t being encouraged either. The majority of people around the world taking part say it’s to raise cancer awareness but that may not have been the original reason.
Such is how the controversy started as Facebook last month removed the black and white picture from Norwegian thriller writer Tom Egeland’s page because of its rules on nudity.
This photo in question is a historic Pulitzer Prize-winning image, called The Terror of War, by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut from June 8, 1972 of South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places.
Egeland included the Nick Ut picture as one of seven photographs he said had “changed the history of warfare”.
Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten joined in and published the same picture on its Facebook page, which was also censored.
Solberg was one of a string of Norwegian politicians who also shared the iconic image after Facebook deleted a post from Tom Egeland.
The censorship sparked a heated debate about freedom of speech which pushed Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO, on Friday to publish front-page open letter to the social media’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as protest to Facebook’s action.
Hansen called on Zuckerberg to recognize and live up to his role as “the world’s most powerful editor”.
He accused Zuckerberg of thoughtlessly “abusing your power” over the social media site that has become a lynchpin of the distribution of news and information around the world, writing, “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society.”
“I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” he added.
Egeland was subsequently suspended from Facebook.
When Aftenposten reported on the suspension – using the same photograph in its article, which was then shared on the publication’s Facebook page – the newspaper received a message from Facebook asking it to “either remove or pixelize” the photograph.
“Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed,” the notice from Facebook explains.
Before Aftenposten could respond, Hansen writes, Facebook deleted the article and image from the newspaper’s Facebook page.
In his open letter, Hansen also pointed out that Facebook’s decision to delete the photograph reveals a troubling inability to “distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs”, as well as an unwillingness to “allow[ing] space for good judgement”.
“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,” he wrote. “I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.”
Hansen goes on to argue that rather than fulfill its mission statement to “make the world more open and connected”, such editorial decisions “will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other”.
The Aftenposten editorial comes at a time of scrutiny on Facebook for its ever-increasing dominance in the dissemination of news.
News organizations and companies have been uncomfortably reliant on Facebook to reach an online audience. It’s known now that independent company websites are a “dying breed” because of Facebook’s popularity and platform which has algorithms that can exert enormous power over public opinion and independence.
According to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 44% of US adults get their news on Facebook.
Hansen lambasted the types of decision Facebook makes about what kind of content is promoted, tolerated, or banned – whether it makes those decisions algorithmically or not – are functionally editorial.
“The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case,” he wrote.
“This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”
“Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.”
A May 2016 report by Gizmodo that Facebook’s trending bar was deliberately suppressing articles from conservative news sites set off a firestorm that saw Zuckerberg making personal outreach to top conservatives.
Hansen’s suggestions for Facebook to improve its behavior include “geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication”, “distinguish[ing] between editors and other Facebook users,” and a “comprehensive review of the way you operate”.
He also called for increased accessibility from the company, writing, “Today, 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.”
The CEO of Aftenposten’s publisher, Schibsted Media Group, Rolv Erik Ryssdal said: Facebook had tried to stop the newspaper publishing “one of the most important photos of our time”.
“It is not acceptable. Facebook’s censorship is an attack on the freedom of expression – and therefore on democracy,” he added.
Ryssdal said Facebook was increasingly powerful in Norway’s media market, capturing NOK 1.5bn (£137m) of advertising while paying “only crumbs in taxes back to society”.
“Schibsted Media Group believes it is very important that the Norwegian media industry now gather to create an independent alternative to the American giants’ enormous power in the advertising market,” he said. “We are talking about the prerequisite for independent journalism. Facebook’s treatment of Aftenposten is another proof of the importance of this.”
Facebook is facing criticism over its regulation of content as it aims to find a universal standard to apply to its 1.7 billion monthly users, and bans on pornography prevent posting art or historic photographs like the one at the heart of the controversy in Norway.
Facebook is seeking to strike a balance between enabling free speech and “maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community,” it said.
“While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others,” an unidentified Facebook spokesperson said in an e-mailed comment. “Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.”
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.
Zuckerberg addressed the question of Facebook’s role in the news media and appeared to downplay his editorial responsibilities, while speaking in Rome last month.
“We are a tech company, not a media company,” he said. “The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.”