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Petulant Facebook claims it can't tell the difference between child abuse and war photography

Defensive attitude shows just how much social media giant needs to grow up

By Kieren McCarthy, 9 Sep 2016

Update There's a reason why we don't put kids in charge of anything important.

Unfortunately for us, and for Facebook, the fun website where we shared pictures and updates about our lives has become much more in recent years: it is now a significant source of real world news and information for millions of people.

The young adults that run the social media giant don't seem to have realized this, as has been made clear rather dramatically by the deletion of an iconic war photograph and then the company's petulant reaction in response to being challenged. Oh, the arrogance and stupidity of youth.

There isn't a person over 35 who doesn't know the 1972 photo of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running away, naked, from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. It is one of the most famous photos of all time. It shocked the conscience of millions and caused a significant shift in support for the fruitless war.

Someone at Facebook decided they couldn't tell the difference between it and an image of child abuse.

Even more amazingly, when faced with a backlash, a Facebook spokesperson actually argued their case: "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." No, it's really not.

But if that petulant, defensive attitude wasn't bad enough, it is nothing compared to what preceded it.


When Norwegian writer Tom Egeland posted the photo among six others to highlight pictures that had "changed the history of warfare," Facebook both ignored the context and the actual photo and demanded he remove it.

He, quite rightly, refused. And so Facebook reacted by suspending him. Our network, our rules.

Egeland's case was taken up by newspaper Aftenposten, which used the same photo to illustrate its article. Having failed once, Facebook's response to being challenged was classic teenager: rather than reflect on the fact that it might be wrong, it tried to force its will.

It demanded that Aftenposten "remove or pixelize" the photo. Inevitably, Aftenposten refused. And its editor, Espen Egil Hansen, wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticizing him and his organization.

At this point, any normal organization would immediately have recognized something was wrong and pushed the issue up the management chain. Maybe they did; maybe Facebook executives are equally lacking in common sense.

But what happened then shows just how much Facebook needs to grow up and review how it views its users and their use of its service.

In defense of Aftenposten, a number of Norwegian politicians including the prime minister Erna Solberg herself posted to their Facebook pages adding the image as a protest. "I appreciate the work Facebook and other media do to stop content and pictures showing abuse and violence," wrote Solberg, "but Facebook is wrong when they censor such images ... I say no to this form of censorship."

Facebook's mind-boggling response? It simply reached into her account and deleted the post.

How Facebook sees things

For years now, people have complained vociferously about how Facebook changes its policies seemingly on a whim, and constantly changes what it is allowed to do with its users' content.

While Facebook has correctly stated that it is in charge of the service and listens to user concerns, it has failed absolutely and completely to learn the correct lesson from the complaints.

Rather than recognizing that the corporation – which makes billions on the backs of its users' activities – needs to show much greater respect for its users' content, it had taken the opposite perspective: that it is in charge and can do what it wants.

Facebook has deluded itself that this approach is a critical component of its success. By running roughshod over privacy concerns, it has been able to monetize every aspect of what its users do. Advertisers can reach precise market segments so easily and effectively that the marketing dollars just keep flooding in.

Faced with a constant backdrop of criticism from privacy advocates, the already insular organization has entrenched itself. It tells itself what it wants to hear and has stopped listening to outside voices. As a result, it has started treating users with disdain, imposing a raft of bad policies and then lashing out at anyone who complains.

It is particularly instructive that when a group of people not known for their blind allegiance – journalists – were invited into the company to help curate Facebook's expanding news section, they were treated as "other."

Facebook recently rejected the "foreign bodies" and fired the group. The result was a news disaster of epic proportions. Again, the company failed to heed the warning. It knows best. It is making more money than ever. And users aren't leaving. Everything points to success.

Wait for the backdown

It is absolutely inevitable that Facebook will back down in this dispute over this iconic war photo. It is so far in the wrong that the noise will only get louder until it finally gets over itself. The teenager is about to look into the faces of a dozen angry adults and finally realize that maybe it did get it wrong.

And what Facebook will do then is have an internal review and revise its policies yet again. No doubt it will put out some childish statement that talks about improving its systems while claiming that its policies are still correct.

What it won't do is what an adult would do: admit fault, apologize and assure users it will do its best to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

At some point, Facebook needs to grow up. It should start that process now. But it won't. It will have to see user numbers drop and revenues fall to have that moment of introspection. And by then, it may be too late. ®

Updated to add

As predicted, Facebook has backed down. And, as predicted, it has failed to admit fault or apologize. Here is the statement in full:

After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography.

In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed. We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days.

We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward.

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