Facebook’s censorship of the iconic Vietnam war photograph — and the unhealthiness of relying on a single news publisher

Dr Martin Moore is Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, and Senior Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. His views in this blog were first published on Medium.

2016 may be the year we recognise how unhealthy it is to be so reliant on a single publisher for so much of our news and information, especially when that publisher — Facebook — doesn’t even acknowledge it is one.

Facebook’s censorship of the iconic photograph of a naked girl running from napalm bombs in Vietnam that led to an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from the editor of Norway’s largest newspaper, has sparked an escalating worldwide debate about Facebook’s editorial policies. [*After this post was published Facebook reversed its decision and said it would allow the photograph to be published].


Photo by Nick Ut

Yet this is certainly not the first debate about these policies this year. In May Facebook defended itself against allegations that it discriminated against Conservative news in its Trending feed. In July, following the broadcast on Facebook Live of the death of Philando Castile after he was shot by police in Minnesota, Facebook tried to clarify its policy on which shootings it would allow broadcast and which it would not:

if a person witnessed a shooting, and used Facebook live to raise awareness or find the shooter, we would allow it. However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video

The Facebook statement does not make clear how the company will distinguish between footage that raises awareness as against footage that is celebratory. Yet it is hard to see how this is not an editorial choice, and a choice that has to be made by a person and not an algorithm.

The editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, the author of the open letter, proposes that:

The least Facebook should do… is introduce geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication. Furthermore, Facebook should distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users

But this risks creating more problems than it solves. How should Facebook decide on ‘geographically differentiated guidelines’? Should it agree them with national governments? If so, doesn’t this make Facebook equivalent to State media? If not governments, then who should Facebook consult with to decide on the guidelines? As to Facebook distinguishing between editors and other users — on what basis?

Photo by Spencer E Holtaway

Photo by Spencer E Holtaway

There are two things, I would suggest, that could be done to help; the first by Facebook, the second by us, the public.

First, Facebook should stop aspiring to be a news publisher while at the same time saying that it is not one. For example, it could ease up on its efforts to keep people inside the Facebook walled garden when reading or watching news. Facebook Instant Articles, launched last year, encourages publishers to enter their content directly to Facebook’s system. This way the newsfeed loads faster and people do not have to leave Facebook. But encouraging news organisations to publish directly onto Facebook effectively makes the social media giant into a news publisher. Giving people an easier route out of Facebook would partly address this. Of course, the chances of this happening are slim, since it is against Facebook’s commercial interest. Equally, Facebook could get rid of Trending Topics (something it is rumoured to be planning anyway) and stop trying to turn Facebook Live into a live news network (Facebook is currently paying various news organisations to produce content).

An alternative approach would be for Facebook to admit that it is a publisher and bring in an editor-in-chief or equivalent. But while this might address the misleading impression that Facebook makes no editorial decisions, it is hard to see how this would be practicable, let alone advisable. No one person, or even a raft of people, could deal with the quantity of questions and exceptions raised by Facebook’s 1.7 billion active users.

Which leads to the second, and more important thing we need to do. We need to recognise how dangerous it is to rely on one organisation for so much of our news and information. According to this year’s Reuters Digital News Report over half the people in 26 countries regularly get their news from social media. For the majority of these people Facebook — and its subsidiaries WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger — is social media. This is far more than any single news organisation.

For a long time democratic societies have known the importance of a diverse and plural media environment. The problem in the digital age is expressed differently, but it’s the same problem. We need to acknowledge this and reduce our reliance on Facebook. In the end, Facebook is a commercial organisation and free to choose what appears and does not appear in the news feed. If we simply put up with it then we have only ourselves to blame.

Martin Moore has written more about Facebook and other tech giants in ‘Tech Giants and Civic Power’, a report published earlier this year by the Policy Institute at King’s.

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