Facebook's Arbitrary Censors Strike Again; Ban Norwegian Newspaper From Posting Iconic Vietnam War Photo

from the moderation-is-difficult dept

For years, we’ve pointed to examples of seemingly ridiculous and/or arbitrary examples of Facebook’s content moderation team blocking or banning perfectly reasonable content as offensive, often in a manner where it apparently can’t distinguish between nudity that is art or newsworthy, from that which is just titillating.

The latest example is getting a ton of attention as Facebook deleted an iconic Vietnam War photo of a young girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack. It’s one of the most famous war photos ever, and the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten included it in a story of “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare.” The writer of the piece, Tom Egeland, posted it to Facebook as well, and Facebook not only took the post down, but suspended Egeland.

This resulted in a front page story at Aftenposten, in which the site’s editor published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. The conceit there is a little silly — it’s not Mark Zuckerberg specifically banning this. It’s a poorly paid team of content moderators who have some basic guidelines and are told to do their best.

And a few points are necessary here: (1) the argument that some make that there should be zero moderation at all isn’t particularly sustainable. Such sites automatically get overrun by spam. If you agree that spam should be removed, then you accept moderation — and then the question is how much. (2) Moderating content at scale is more difficult than you think. Yes, we make fun of Facebook for these kinds of things too, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy problem to solve. This is one of the reasons why we keep arguing that social media sites should look more towards being protocols instead of platforms and then to provide end user tools that allow individuals to create their own moderated experiences, rather than having a centralized team do the work (which they’ll never do well enough).

But, in this case, there does seem to be a bigger problem. And it’s a problem that we see all too often with larger companies like Facebook. Which is that when alerted to such a problem, rather than recognizing the obvious problem, they double down. Here’s the response Facebook originally sent Aftenposten:

If you can’t read that, it says:

We place limitations on the display of nudity to limit the exposure of different people using our platform to sensitive content. Any photographs of people displaying fully nude genitalia or buttocks, or fully nude female breasts, will be removed. Photos of women actively engaged in breast feeding or exposing reconstructed nipples for awareness are allowed. We also make allowances for digitally produced content posted for educational, humorous or satirical purposes, and for photographs of real world art. We understand that these limitations will sometimes affect content shared for legitimate reasons, including awareness campaigns or artistic projects, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

Therefore I ask you to either remove or pixelize this picture.

What’s funny is that many of the “exceptions” listed above are actually examples that Facebook has been mocked in the past for banning, and thus the list looks like it’s been amended each time the company gets embarrassed. So, I would imagine that eventually that paragraph is likely to include an exception for “historic photos” or something of that nature. But, in the meantime, Aftenposten has mockingly put up this image:

The full letter from Aftenposten’s Espen Egil Hansen is worth a read, but I’ll leave you with this part:

The least Facebook should do in order to be in harmony with its time is introduce geographically differentiated guidelines and rules for publication. Furthermore, Facebook should distinguish between editors and other Facebook-users. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.

These measures would still only soften the problems. If Facebook has other objectives than just being as big as possible and earn as much money as possible ? and this I am still convinced that you have, Mark ? you should undertake a comprehensive review of the way you operate.

You are a nice channel for persons who wish to share music videos, family dinners and other experiences. On this level you are bringing people closer to each other. But if you wish to increase the real understanding between human beings, you have to offer more liberty in order to meet the entire width of cultural expressions and discuss substantial matters.

And then you have to be more accessible. Today, if it is possible at all to get in touch with a Facebook representative, the best one may hope for are brief, formalistic answers, with rigid references to universal rules and guidelines. If you take the liberty to challenge Facebook?s rules, you will be met ? as we have seen ? with censorship. And if someone will protest against the censorship, he will be punished, as Tom Egeland was.

It’s easy for some people to just say “Well, don’t use Facebook,” but for many people that’s not really an option these days. You may have that luxury, but many people do not. Facebook has become a key way to stay in touch with family. It’s an important part of many people’s jobs as well. And, yes, Facebook has every right to moderate the content on the site, but it seems worth calling out when that moderation comes across as silly and counterproductive, as it does in this case.

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Companies: aftenposten, facebook

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Comments on “Facebook's Arbitrary Censors Strike Again; Ban Norwegian Newspaper From Posting Iconic Vietnam War Photo”

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43 Comments
DannyB (profile) says:

Censoring this photo is OBSCENE

The obscenity is not the nudity in the photo. The incidental nudity is unremarkable in relation to the shock of the circumstances surrounding the subjects in the photo.

To censor this photo is to trivialize the events depicted in the photo.

Oh, and as for the “just don’t use Facebook”. I don’t. Never have. Never will. And I don’t miss it. I have too great of a life to waste it on a black hole for time that is Facebook.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real problem is news sites relying on facebook or other social media sites to promote their content. Sure post it but realize you are playing in their walled garden. You can even publish an open letter like in this case but facebook has every right to ignore it. Just go host your own content and link to it on facebook instead of hosting it on facebook.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So true

This looks to me like some publisher is using an existing platform that has some set of rules that they don’t like. In stead of playing by the rules they want to change the rules.

I wonder how this guy would feel if I sent in a story to his ‘reader responses’ column add made it a porn story, including explicit photos? Would he ask me to censor it? Would he publish it as is? Would he reject it?

You see, your platform, your rules…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Prime Minister

With the amount of oil Norway has, that is very unlikely. It is basically Kuwait in europe as far as oil goes and even the slump in oil price doesn’t phase them much with their humongous wealth fond. If anything Norway could sell out of their fund, buy Facebook at 700 billion dollars and still laugh all the way to the bank with hundreds of billlions to spare…

Christenson says:

On Platforms

I get that *no* single editor of what I read can possibly get it right. What if social media were to go to a completely decentralized model?

Suppose someone were to invent the “Not Facebook” and “Not Twitter” social media federation protocols, and find a way to crowd-source the editing and much of the hosting.

How would you suggest mitigating echo chamber effects and avoiding popularity contests?

Would that be a good model for a news-thing struggling to maintain relevance?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: On Platforms

I get that *no* single editor of what I read can possibly get it right.

What is “right”?

Apply regional and temporally appropriate censorship to eliminate obscene content without eliminating content which is newsworthy or otherwise important to the public discourse. Preferably, retain an uncensored copy so that the censorship can be adjusted as local standards change over time. As Techdirt regularly points out, cultural standards vary widely, so the choice of whether to censor and if so, in what way, needs to take into account the would-be viewer’s local culture. Thus, as a practical matter, GP can safely expect that no editor will ever be 100% correct. The problem is complicated at small scale, and unworkable at the scale that Facebook et al. host.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The right thing and the easy thing are not always the same thing. People chose to use Facebook and they can choose not to. Somehow people forget how transient these communications platforms are. FB will never even come close to the reach of telephone or email, both technologies that are much easier to claim as necessity.

Dave Cortright says:

Mike, a little more nuance please

t’s easy for some people to just say “Well, don’t use Facebook,” but for many people that’s not really an option these days…

So use Facebook for “music videos, family dinners and other experiences” and “to stay in touch with family”. But is it realistic for Facebook to be a platform that is best for all things to all people? You can still share a link to the article; just not with the “obscene” image associated. And there are probably better platforms for sharing more meaningful news and information that attract the the attention of clumsy, and overly-broad censors.

Ruby says:

Is…is it truly necessary to post an uncensored image of a naked child?

I mean I get that it’s “iconic” (apparently people in the 70’s needed a photo like this to grasp the concept that dropping fire bombs on children was a bad thing???) but, I just don’t understand why having the basic fucking decency to put up a black bar or something is a problem.

You can still easily grasp that she was naked, you still point out to highly stupid people that setting villages on fire means little kids catch on fire, but you don’t add to that poor girl’s problems by splashing her genitals all over everything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The article was about photographs that changed warfare. Would be rather pointless without the picture in question.

And I guess this can be hard to grasp for americans, but nudity is not that big of a deal in scandinavia. Swedens most beloved old children movies has naked people, both adults and kids in most of them. Same goes for a not insignificant number of newly produced movies/TV shows.

It is not unusual for kids to have no clothes at all at the beach until they are 3-5 years old, maybe a hat to protect their head from the sun. This is why the journalist has asked for more geographically tuned censor filters, filters that would make sense in some parts of the world does not do it in other. And this should answer a earlier commenters question about why scandinavians has made such fuss about similar events. In our mind, it does not make sense to censor some things. A photo of your kid at the beach might be removed as offensive, even though you only share it with friends, none of which would think it was wierd.

I understand facebook is an american company and applies american standards (naturally). But is becomes a source of frustration for cultures that does not agree fully, leaving residents with two sub optimal choices. Either you leave facebook (like I did) and miss events, social gatherings and the de facto standard way to keep in touch with friends and family. Or you stay with it, accepting the limitations on what you would considered inoffensive content

Steffano Castellanos says:

Silly Norwegians, egos bruised.

Espen Egil Hansen is an ass. He will not write about Norway’s Riks Hospital’s dirty doings against patients that get old kidneys in transplant operations or, get kicked out of the transplant lists because they are gay or get killed due to malpractices and how no one gets punished. Norway reacts when Facebook tells them off. Espen Egil Hansen’s ego was bruised. What has Norway to do with Vietnam? The Prime Minister gets involved as well and wastes time with FB instead of paying attention to things at home that need fixing. It is a naked child, it is iconic but rules are rules and it is a naked child. Why did that journalist want to show that in FB? Who can guarantee us that journalist is not a pedophile? There are many in Norway! Whoever reported the use of that iconic photo to Facebook must have a reason! I remember the USA had a debate on that picture years ago. Norway thinks they can tell people world-over what to do and/or how to think. Truth be told in this country racism is high! justice is abusive and tons goes unpunished. That journalists ego was bruised and he did not think of the girl’s plight and privacy but of his own ego. Facebook do not cave in – these Norwegians are no better than the rest. They are just rich spoiled little brats.

Tara Li says:

A possible solution

For moderation, make someone sign off on the moderation – perhaps not actual name, but some kind of identifier that the company must map to a person, so that in the case of a challenge or a court case, a specific person can be located and questioned – and users can note any specific moderator that seems to be over-moderating. Note – the identifier cannot be for a team or shift or something – it must be for a specific individual so that a complaint can be made against the single person that actually makes the call. Perhaps even a two or three layer sign-off, three people that must be willing to put their identifier on the moderated item. This would help identify groups who habitually back each other up no matter what, and perhaps identify groups within the company, such as on a specific shift or under a specific manager, who have not had adequate training in what is and isn’t acceptable.

btr1701 (profile) says:

The Essential Facebook

> It’s easy for some people to just say “Well, don’t use Facebook,” but for many
> people that’s not really an option these days. You may have that luxury, but
> many people do not. Facebook has become a key way to stay in touch with
> family.

I can’t imagine how horrifying it must be to wake up one day and find out that doing without Facebook simply isn’t an option anymore. I mean, seriously. That would be depressing on a level I can’t comprehend.

Also, I wonder how families stayed in touch with one another in the pre-Zuckerberg Epoch? What dark, hellish times those must have been.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Essential Facebook

Well, it WAS harder to stay in touch. Not impossible, but harder.

And yes, you CAN jump off Facebook, but as long as a significant part of population is using Facebook, it is a significant sacrifice to make. Social medias power is in the number of other people using it. You could use something else, but as long as you are alone there, you might as well sit and shout alone in a shed on the northpole.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you didn't know the context

it is likely the photo would seem like just another piece of war porn.

It is worth noting that a lot of moderation is offshored. While this photo is historically significant in American culture, it is unlikely to be recognized in by a filipino 20 something whose job is to subject themselves to distilled horrible disturbing content all day.

Really the more disturbing part is the harm being done to the moderators themselves, so that these mega corps can provide a Disney version of the Internet.

Loving the first amendment is about embracing humanity. Even the disgusting parts of it. And while it is nice to not have to write your own filters every time, it is important to take off any third party filters once in a while to make sure your still upright.

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