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Facebook backtracks on censoring famous Vietnam war photo

This photo by Nick Ut is considered to be one of the defining images of the Vietnam War.

This photo by Nick Ut is considered to be one of the defining images of the Vietnam War. (Associated Press)

On June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese warplanes bombed the village of Trang Bang with napalm, attacking North Vietnamese troops there but also wounding civilians — including children.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, approaching the village, saw a naked, screaming girl approaching him. Her back was scorched by the napalm, a jellied gasoline that is ignited before being dropped.

After taking photos, Ut took the girl — named Kim Phuc, she now resides in Canada — to the hospital before dropping off his film, according to Wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, AP initially didn’t want to publish the photo because of Kim Phuc’s nudity. When it did hit the wire, it would have the same impact on public opinion as the photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in waters off Turkey, did about 43 years later.

But in 2016, the image proved too touchy for Facebook, the global leader in social networking. From the NYT (“Facebook Restores Iconic Vietnam War Photo It Censored for Nudity“):

So after a Norwegian author posted images about the terror of war with the photo to Facebook, the company removed it.

The move triggered a backlash over how Facebook was censoring images. When a Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, cried foul over the takedown of the picture, thousands of people globally responded on Friday with an act of virtual civil disobedience by posting the image of Ms. Phuc on their Facebook pages and, in some cases, daring the company to act. Hours after the pushback, Facebook reinstated the photo across its site.

“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,” Facebook said in a statement on Friday. “In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

The reversal underscores Facebook’s increasingly tricky position as an arbiter of mass media. While the social network has resisted being labeled a media entity — its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, recently told a group of Italian university students that Facebook is a “tech company, not a media company” — many used the Vietnam War photo uproar to call upon the Silicon Valley behemoth to acknowledge its control over the articles, videos and images that people consume.

“Mark Zuckerberg can resist the definition all he wants, claiming Facebook is a white hot tech company, not a media company,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “But it is now possible for a company to be both.”

Additional reading

Sept. 9, 2016, Aftenposten, “Dear Mark. I am writing this to inform you that I shall not comply with your requirement to remove this picture.”

Sept. 9, 2016, Fortune, “Here’s Why Facebook Removing That Vietnam War Photo Is So Important“:

Of course, the social network is a corporation controlled by its shareholders (primarily Mark Zuckerberg), and therefore it isn’t required to adhere to the free-speech dictates of the First Amendment. But it arguably plays a stronger role in information dissemination and consumption than any media outlet has in the history of modern media.

There’s an assumption when reading a newspaper that the editors in charge are interested in informing people about what’s happening in the world, even if that information is disturbing or offensive to some. But there’s no such assumption with Facebook because it denies that it is a media entity or that it has any duty to inform.

That position is becoming increasingly untenable, however, as the impact of its removal of certain kinds of content—or even the way it ranks information in its trending topics section, which has also been the source of controversy—continues to escalate.

Some have suggested that Facebook should have a “public editor,” the way media outlets such as the New York Times NYT -2.23% do, or an advisory board of journalists who can help it make such decisions. But that would require the company to admit that it has some responsibilities as a media company, and so far it seems reluctant to do so.

Sept. 9, 2016, Fortune, “Facebook Agrees to Reinstate Vietnam Photo After Censorship Backlash

Sat, September 10 2016 » Main Page, Media