Facebook walks editorial tightrope with war photo censorship

Facebook walks editorial tightrope with war photo censorshipThe iconic photo of Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war was removedly Facebook.

FRESH calls for Facebook to re-evaluate its responsibility to ensure freedom of expression have been made by the Australian Press Council following controversy over the social media site’s censoring of a war photograph.

The iconic image of a naked nine-year-old, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war was removed because of Facebook’s guidelines on nudity.

The press council this week urged Facebook to “review urgently the way it aggregates and disseminates the world’s news and to make public the editorial policy, if there is one, which guides this work”.

Council chair David Weisbrot said as more people accessed news on Facebook, “the company’s public interest responsibilities and accountability must increase”.

“Facebook is no longer simply a passive aggregator and disseminator of news and other information. It is unacceptable for Facebook to rely on vague and inconsistently applied rules and a complex computer algorithm to shape the content featured and distributed by what is, in effect, a global news service,” Professor Weisbrot said.

“Facebook must also address the clumsy and ineffective way in which its moderators and computer algorithms make crucial editorial decisions on behalf of Facebook’s users. Any attempt to impose universal, but lowest common denominator, rules that ignore context and cultural differences or operate to censor newsworthy images and information, must be avoided.”

The post that began the furor was made by Norwegian author Tom Egeland, who was suspended from the site for a day. Outrage and allegations of censorship forced a backflip by Facebook.

Aftenposten's print front page last Friday.

Aftenposten’s print front page last Friday.

The front page of Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten carried an open letter to Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg criticising the censorship.

Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, said in the letter he was “upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society”.

“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,” he said.

“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?”

The letter described Mr Zuckerberg as “the world’s most powerful editor”, but Facebook has been trying to distance itself from being charactised as a media company.

Two weeks ago Mr Zuckerberg asserted that Facebook was not, and had no intention of becoming, a media company as it did not produce any content. Facebook was a tech company, he said.

However, the company employs moderators to remove content that breaches its view of acceptable community standards. Earlier this year, they pulled a photo of two topless Indigenous Australians performing an ancient Aboriginal ceremony, which was originally published by New Matilda. The company also deploys an algorithm to try to target content to specific users based on their previous selection of content.

The CEO of NewsMediaWorks, Mark Hollands, said: “This is the reality of the media that today’s society is creating and increasingly valuing.

“The importance of fighting for press freedom, quality content and sound editorial judgment has never been more important. This is a classic example of why it is important.

“Our global industry approach must be to educate, rather than preach this point. Most people either don’t understand or don’t care. Yet, a serious problem is looming for nations that value freedom of expression and its contribution to open and democratic societies.

“We should highlight and dismiss misleading claims by companies such as Google and Facebook that they are simply platforms, or tech companies. That’s rubbish, and they know it. They use technology to preference content.

“Editors have a similar role but they must take responsibility for their actions, not hide behind spurious claims of being merely disinterested third-party facilitators of content distribution.”

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