After causing an international incident by deleting an iconic Vietnam War photo because it was deemed to have violated the site’s community standards, Facebook said on Friday that it is making an exception for the picture and will reinstate it in all the posts where it was removed.
The photo was of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, a Vietnam orphan who was running down a road naked and burned by a napalm attack on her village in 1972.
After removing multiple copies and, in some cases, suspending accounts that posted it, the social network released a statement on Friday saying:
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.
A Norwegian newspaper editor posted the picture as part of a series on war photography, only to have it deleted by Facebook (FB), which said it breached community standards against pictures of children in the nude.
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The same editor posted a link to a story in a second Norwegian newspaper where Kim Phuc, who now lives in Canada, talked about the censorship of her picture and how she thought it was wrong of Facebook to remove it.
That post was also removed, and the editor who posted it had his account suspended.
This triggered an open letter from the editor-in-chief of the first Norwegian paper, Aftenposten, who wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and criticized the decision to remove such a news-worthy photo.
Espen Hansen said the Facebook co-founder was “the world’s most powerful editor,” and needed to behave in a more journalistic fashion when removing content.
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Supporters also posted copies of the photo and articles about it, many of which were also removed, including a post by the Norwegian prime minister, who complained about the site’s censorship of a news-worthy photograph and its attempt to “edit history.”
The Vietnam photo is just the latest example of a growing problem that Facebook faces, as it becomes an ever-more powerful conduit for the news. What the site decides to censor or not censor helps shape the way that hundreds of millions of people understand the world, and that arguably imposes some responsibility on the company.
Until recently, Facebook has refused to admit that it is a media company, or that its algorithms and editors have any journalistic duties or responsibilities.
In its statement, however, the social network said it wants to “engage with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions,” which suggests that it may be planning to address some of the criticisms leveled against it.
Here’s the 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.