Zuckerberg accused of censorsing iconic Viet War photo of naked girl fleeing

Mark Zuckerberg accused of abusing Facebook power
Mark Zuckerberg accused of abusing Facebook power

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has been accused of "abusing" his power as the "world's most powerful editor" by Norway's largest newspaper, which slammed the social network for removing an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War.

Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and chief executive of Aftenposten, called for a change in Facebook's content rules and said the current state of affairs is stifling democratic debate.

"I am upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid — of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society," Hansen wrote in a front-page open letter for his newspaper.

The controversy revolves around a series of pictures posted on Facebook by Norwegian author Tom Egeland depicting scenes from the war. One image was by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut showing a naked girl running from napalm bombs. Hansen called it one of the "world's most famous war photographs."

Facebook removed the picture and prevented Egeland from posting a new photo, Hansen said.

Aftenposten also posted the photo on Facebook with an accompanying article. Hansen said he received an email demanding the removal of the picture on Wednesday, but Facebook removed the image and article before he could write a response.

In an emailed statement to CNBC, a Facebook spokesman said: "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," the Facebook spokesman added. "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."

The June 8, 1972, photo showing children including a naked 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phuc gained Ut a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.

"The image was unprecedented at the time for the Associated Press news wire, due to full frontal nudity depicted of the bombing victims," the AP says in an online post. Ut's supervisors "deemed the photograph newsworthy and its value overrode the nudity in the image and it was widely distributed on the AP newswire."

Hansen said publishers find it "hard to avoid" Facebook and he doesn't wish to do so, but Zuckerberg should take more responsibility for his role as "the world's most powerful editor."

"Even though I am editor-in-chief of Norway's largest newspaper, I have to realize that you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility," Hansen wrote.

"I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly."

It was not only Aftenposten's image that was removed. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the same image on her own page, and it was taken down by Facebook.

‘Promote stupidity’

Hansen argues that pictures like the one he posted — even though they have images of naked children — played a role in ending the Vietnam War and contributed to more open and critical debate on the topic.

"The free and independent media have an important task in bringing information, even including pictures, which sometimes may be unpleasant, and which the ruling elite and maybe even ordinary citizens cannot bear to see or hear, but which might be important precisely for that reason," Hansen added.


Aftenposten's editor said the media have a responsibility to consider publication in each individual case, something that shouldn't be "undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California." Hansen goes on to say that Facebook's objective to make the world more open and connected is being done in a "totally superficial sense."

"If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other," the op-ed said.


Hansen called on Facebook to introduce "geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication," rather than one set of rules, and asked the social media firm to distinguish between editors and general Facebook users. And Hansen said Facebook needs to be more "accessible."

"I am worried that the world's most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way."

Aftenposten's open letter comes at a time when Facebook's role in news distribution is under scrutiny. Facebook is a key driver of traffic to news sites. But a Gizmodo report earlier this year said the social network routinely prevented stories with a conservative slant from appearing on the site's "trending topics" list. Zuckerberg met with senior conservative leaders in an attempt to assuage fears after the story.