Jane B Singer: Learning to live with Facebook

Facebook blocked the image of children fleeing a napalm attack. Photo / AP
Facebook blocked the image of children fleeing a napalm attack. Photo / AP

• Jane B. Singer is Professor of Journalism Innovation, City, University of London

Facebook's recent decision to block a Norwegian user's post containing the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of children, one of them a terrified and naked girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, was met by a cry of outrage from journalists and other free-speech advocates.

Norwegian writer Tom Egeland had posted the picture on his Facebook page as part of a discussion of "seven photographs that changed the history of warfare". He was subsequently blocked from Facebook.

When Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported on this, including the image in its story and posting it on Facebook, the image was blocked there as well. Facebook cited its policy of barring images of nude children as part of its defence against use of its platform for child pornography.

The newspaper then splashed the image across its front page accompanied by a "Dear Mark Zuckerberg" letter from editor Espen Egil Hansen. Hansen expressed strong concern that "the world's most powerful editor", in charge of "the world's most important medium" was "limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it".

Journalists, politicians and others around the world republished the image in protest and as a sign of solidarity.

On Friday, Facebook backed down. It reinstated the picture, citing its "status as an iconic image of historical importance", which, it said, "outweighs the value of protecting the community by its removal". It was a good, if belated, decision. But was it a victory for free speech? Not inherently.

Two wrongs on a right

Facebook's initial argument that posting the iconic photo would make it more difficult subsequently to refuse to post other photos of naked children was arguably disingenuous but also just plain faulty. Surely a company with the obvious, indeed mindboggling, technical chops that Facebook possesses has the ability to create an algorithm to take such markers as Pulitzer Prizes into account when making publication calls.

But editors also are on shaky ground in trying to dictate to Facebook what it should or should not publish. It is in fact ironic that they should think doing so is appropriate, let alone righteous, behaviour.

To understand why, consider the justifiable rage if the situation were reversed: if a third-party platform (or anyone else, for that matter) attempted to tell a journalist what stories to write and how to play them.

Freedom of the press conveys the right to make independent decisions about what to cover, how to cover it and what to do with the information once it's in hand. It is the freedom to decide what to say, as well as when and where and how to say it. It also conveys the right not to say something.

Every publisher must have that freedom if it is to have any meaning - including, yes, Facebook. A decision by Facebook not to allow a particular bit of information to appear on its site may be a bad decision but it is neither tyranny nor censorship. The company did not tell other people what they could or should do with the photo. It merely exercised its right to make the call in relation to the image on its own site.

Power of the platform

What makes this trickier, though, is that the Aftenposten editor is right about his broader charge: that Facebook holds unprecedented global power over the flow of information. But this power over the press, which is indeed significant, is actually quite different from censorship as understood by both tradition and law.

Facebook cannot prevent an item from being made visible to an audience, as it has no control over what publishers choose to publish or broadcasters to broadcast through their own distribution channels. The power it does have, however, is to expand an item's visibility once it is published or broadcast. Conversely, if Facebook chooses not to exercise that power to extend visibility then visibility is indeed curtailed.

In other words, the effectiveness of news companies, and perhaps even their survival, is at least to some extent out of their hands. The situation is both frightening and frustrating. Aftenposten editor Hansen declared, in his front page "letter" to the Facebook boss, that "editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor". And, though he didn't say it, as master publisher, too.

- The Conversation

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