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Zuckerberg criticized over censorship after Facebook deletes 'napalm girl' photo

Zuckerberg criticized over censorship after Facebook deletes 'napalm girl' photo

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The editor-in-chief of Norway’s biggest newspaper has accused Mark Zuckerberg of abusing his power after Facebook deleted a post containing a historic image from the Vietnam War. Espen Egil Hansen, who is also CEO of Aftenposten, called Zuckerberg the "world’s most powerful editor," and said the decision to remove the photograph because it contained nudity (the image shows the aftermath of a napalm attack) was a serious error in judgement.

"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," wrote Hansen in an open letter published online and on the front page of Aftenposten’s Friday print edition.

An article featuring the image was deleted from Facebook

The Pulitzer Prize-winning image was originally taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, and shows a naked nine-year-old Kim Phúc fleeing from a napalm bombing along with other children. The image, along with six more, was posted on Facebook by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland in a discussion of photographs that changed the history of warfare. Egeland’s account was suspended for the post, and when Aftenposten wrote a story on the suspension and shared it on the paper’s Facebook page that too was deleted.

"Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breast, will be removed," said Facebook in a warning sent to Aftenposten prior to the deletion.

In his open letter to Zuckerberg, Hansen says that Facebook is a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and relatives, and a "nice channel for persons who wish to share music videos, family dinners and other experiences." However, he says the company needs to "offer more liberty in order to meet the entire width of cultural expressions," instead of sticking to one uniform set of rules that often ignore the context of images.

"[Editors] should not be undermined by algorithms"

"The media have a responsibility to consider publication [of stories] in every single case," writes Hansen. "This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California." He adds: "I have written this letter to you because I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom in stead [sic] of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way."

Facebook’s approach to editorial decision-making has been under scrutiny recently, especially with regards to the company’s trending news list. The company reportedly fired some 18 contractors tasked with curating topics for the list after accusations of bias, before replacing them with an algorithm.

This choice has led to a string of errors, including the sharing of hoax stories as if they were legitimate news items. These mistakes are ongoing, and just yesterday Facebook’s top story associated with Apple’s iPhone launch was a spoof article about a robot Siri that does household chores. Others have criticized Facebook’s algorithms for being prey to partisan publications that spin the news into shareable — but inaccurate — stories.

Posting the photo of Phúc, meanwhile, has turned into an act of protest in Norway. The Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg even shared the image on the site, writing in a post: "Facebook is wrong to censor such pictures. It helps to slow freedom of speech." Solberg's post was later deleted as well. Phúc herself was reportedly "saddened" by Facebook's actions, with a spokesperson telling Norway's Dagsavisen: "Kim is saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys."

Regarding Hansen’s letter, a spokesperson for Facebook told The Guardian: "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."

"We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. 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."

Updated September 9th, 6:44AM ET: The story has been updated to add information about the deletion of the Norwegian prime minister's post and comments from Phúc's spokesperson.