You probably recognise Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of charred Vietnamese children running away from the site of a napalm incendiary bomb detonated by the South Vietnamese Air Force in Trang Bang. Earlier this week, however, Facebook effectively banned the Pulitzer-winning photograph from its own site. Now the site is backtracking as quickly as it can.
As first reported by the Guardian, the web behemoth unilaterally removed two posts, authored by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and the Prime Minister of Norway, that included the image. The paper later published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, in which editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen condemned Facebook’s censorship, while the Norwegian P.M., Erna Solberg, uploaded a deliberately censored version of the same photograph. Facebook initially defended its decision in a statement to several news outlets:
While we recognise 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.
Julia Carrie Wong of the Guardian notes that “the posts would have been reported by a user to Facebook’s community standards team, who would then have made the decision to remove them, rather than being removed automatically by algorithm.” In other words, Facebook employees made a deliberate choice to remove Ut’s photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, who happened to be naked because the napalm attack had lit her clothes on fire.
This is not the first time Facebook has chosen to remove users’ content because the site deemed it unsavoury or controversial. Last year, after masked Islamist gunmen murdered eleven staffers of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, the site began removing images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, whose depiction is forbidden by certain teachings of Islam.. The company blamed the images’ removal on a court order from a local judge in Turkey, but that explanation was hard to square with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s stated support of the slain Charlie Hebdo staffers. In a letter published after the attacks in Paris, Zuckerberg wrote, “We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world.”
In the case of Nick Ut’s iconic photograph, Facebook apparently had a change of heart. On Friday afternoon, the company decided to reinstate the deleted Vietnam War photographs, along with the posts in which they appeared. In a statement to Recode, a spokesperson for Facebook said, in part:
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 recognise 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.
Facebook’s reversal is an obvious victory for Aftenposten and Solberg, along with the anti-censorship advocates who joined their protests. But the company’s explanation for the reinstatements is so vague as to be useless when other acts of censorship arise in the future. Facebook claims to “recognise the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time” while omitting why, exactly, this particular photograph is so important. It can’t even bring itself to say “the Vietnam War,” rendering the conflict as merely “a particular moment in time.”
Nick Ut’s photograph won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 because it documented the horrific human cost of the Vietnam War. Facebook’s decision to censor such a photograph, arising from its institutional unwillingness to distinguish between child pornography and images of children maimed by armed conflict, was despicable. Its subsequent refusal to restore the photographs was cowardly. Today’s about-face, though appreciated by those who were directly censored, was always going to be too little, and too late.