“We understand that these limitations will sometimes affect content shared for legitimate reasons … and we apologize for the inconvenience.”
— Facebook’s explanation of its censorship
It gladdens my Viking heart to inform you that my people have been acting up again. Not in the service of pillage and plunder, but to defend your freedom of speech and legitimate access to information against witless censorship.
The target of this latter-day outbreak of Viking wrath is Facebook, the world’s largest communication platform, thanks to 1.5 billion people’s willingness to have their lives monetized by Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
He likes to deny that Facebook has morphed into a de-facto global media company. Yet an estimated 44 percent of Americans rely on Facebook for news. That’s largely because Facebook acts as a gatekeeping portal to news sites.
And that’s why you should know what happened when Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, posted a famous photo of burned, screaming children fleeing after being doused with napalm during the Vietnam War. It shows what happens when one enormous company, running on autopilot, usurps the power to decide what constitutes legitimate speech.
It all began when Norwegian author Tom Egeland posted historic photos that have helped end war on his Facebook page, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the napalmed children. One of them was a little girl, Kim Phuc. She was naked.
Reportedly mindful of child pornography, Facebook does not allow images of nudity on its site. This is commendable. Except when it isn’t.
Differentiating between, say, pornography and an historical event sometimes calls for a bracing dose of human judgment. In the “dead tree” news business, such judgments are rendered by people called editors. In 1972, Associated Press photo desk editors say they spent 10 to 15 minutes deciding whether the napalm photo should be published despite the AP’s ban on full frontal nudity.
Decided by computers
But Facebook leaves such decisions to machines — i.e., computer algorithms. So, acting on the perceived wisdom of algorithms, Facebook removed the photo from Egeland’s post. Egeland responded by posting Phuc’s criticism of Facebook’s censorship. Facebook retaliated by temporarily banning Egeland from posting anything. When Aftenposten reported what had happened to Egeland and posted the offending image on its own Facebook page, Facebook also removed Aftenposten’s photo.
On Sept. 8, Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, devoted his newspaper’s entire front page to re-publishing the photo with an open letter to Zuckerberg. “I shall not comply with your requirement to remove documentary photography from the Vietnam war made by Nick Ut. Not today, and not in the future,” Hansen wrote.
“The world’s most important medium [Facebook] is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it,” Hansen charged. He warned against Facebook’s “censorship” and reliance on “authoritarian,” “formalistic” non-responses to legitimate complaints from newspaper editors such as himself who use Facebook’s platform to more widely distribute their news reports. (They, like you, do of course dance with this devil entirely of their own volition.)
A free press in a democracy cannot be subjected to rote, arbitrary censorship, Hansen protested. And algorithms keep readers isolated in an information “filter bubble” by providing more of what they’ve already “liked,” not what they don’t like but need to know, and this polarizing effect is bad news for democracy, Hansen correctly argued.
“You are the world’s most powerful editor,” he told Zuckerberg. But, he charged, “You are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility … I think you are abusing your power … Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.” The right and duty of editors to decide what to publish “should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California,” he rightly declared.
Taking on Facebook
But Facebook wasn’t done with those pesky Norwegians.
The same day Aftenposten published Hansen’s letter, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted praise for Facebook for its concern about child pornography. “But Facebook is taking a wrong step when they censor images like these. It works to curb freedom of speech,” she wrote, adding that Facebook’s censorship amounted to “editing our common history.” She re-posted the photo.
It was promptly removed from the prime minister’s Facebook page by Facebook, as were the posts of six government ministers who also used the offending image.
Facebook defiantly defended its censorship of newspapers and government officials by lamely explaining that some in the Facebook community “react” to nudity. But within 48 hours, Facebook capitulated. “Because of [the photo’s] status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal,” a faceless Facebook statement bureaucratically intoned.
Norway is a small country of 5 million souls. Happily, they’re rich. (Perhaps not as rich as Mark Zuckerberg, but still.) Their Oil Fund is the world’s largest sovereign investment fund. And they’ve invested $1.5 billion (not a misprint) of it in Facebook. The Norwegian government owns 0.52 percent of the company, though it now is being pressured by Norwegian journalists to divest.
Hansen properly laments that his criticism has been met with dead silence from Master Editor of Algorithms Zuckerberg.
And while Facebook never apologized to Egeland for its high-handed, “inconvenient” censorship, Prime Minister Solberg did get an apology with vague promises repentance from Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In author and Facebook’s chief operating officer.
And the rest of us? Count on more arbitrary censorship “inconvenience” from Facebook.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.