After a day of heated criticism, Facebook has reversed its stance on banning an iconic Vietnam War photo from being shared on its social network. "Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed," Facebook said in a statement obtained by Recode. The episode is just the latest editorial blunder for the company, which has become a source of constant controversy in the news industry as Facebook's role in disseminating information grows larger.
The image in question, titled "The Terror of War," is a 1972 photograph of naked nine-year-old Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack. It was captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. However, because of its contents, Facebook's internal review system flagged it as child pornography when Norwegian writer Tom Egeland posted it online as part of a story about influential war photography.
Facebook could not distinguish between an iconic war photo and nudity
A subsequent post about the removal from Egeland's employer, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, also contained the image. It too was flagged and removed. The stakes were raised when Aftenposten CEO Espen Egil Hansen then wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticizing the company for censorship and calling Zuckerberg the "world's most powerful editor." Hansen said he was "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." The article was posted online and ran on the front page of Aftenposten's Friday edition.
The company originally said its system was working as designed, but conceded that the removal was a shortcoming of its software. "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," a Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian. However, mounting backlash and a number of Norwegian protest posts containing "The Terror of War" — including one from Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg — seems to have pushed the company into concession.
Facebook says it will "reinstate" the image, which means the removed posts should start reappearing. The company says it will take some time to adjust the system to exempt the photo in future posts. Here's the company's full statement:
After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed. We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days. We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward.