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Facebook deletes a famous photograph, and a Norwegian publisher says it’s ‘an attack on democracy’

A 1972 image from the Vietnam War ignites a modern-day controversy about digital publishing.

Aftenposten's Editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen.
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

A Norwegian publisher is laying into Facebook after the social network repeatedly deleted posts of a famous photograph from the Vietnam war.

“Facebook’s censorship is an attack on the freedom of expression — and therefore on democracy,” said Rolv Erik Ryssdal, CEO Schibsted Media Group, in a statement posted on the company’s site.

The dispute centers around a 1972 photo of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack. The Pulitzer prize-winning photo is one of the world’s most iconic images, and Norwegian writer Tom Egeland posted it to Facebook in a discussion about wartime photography.

Facebook deleted that post, and then one by Schibsted’s Aftenposten newspaper about the deletion, which also included the image.


That triggered yet another Facebook post from Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, which has also been deleted.

At first glance, the dispute seems similar to other incidents where Facebook or other big internet companies have pulled down content because an algorithm flagged it or a user complained, then reconsidered after a public response.

But in this case, Facebook appears to be digging in its heels. In statements to newspapers including the Guardian and the Financial Times, a Facebook rep says that it doesn’t want the photo on its service, regardless of the context:

“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.”

UPDATE: Facebook has decided it’s ok for its users to see the photo after all, and says it will “reinstate the image”, which presumably means it will republish those posts.

Aftenposten responded with an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg this morning, followed by Schibsted’s note, which argues that the incident underscores the dependence publishers have on Facebook and Google.

“There are several aspects of Facebook’s position that we worry about. They are capturing more than NOK 1.5 billion from the Norwegian advertising market. Of this they pay — along with Google — only crumbs in taxes back to society.”

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