Facebook, The Media And That Picture, News Has Changed Forever


Facebook gave a glimpse of the power it holds over the news media last week and the media didn't like it. This story isn't about the Nick Ut's war-defining 'Napalm Girl' image, but it is about a changing face of news ownership that even now some media outlets fail to recognise.

The bare facts of the story were that the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten was dinged several times by Facebook for publishing the image to their site as part of a series on photojournalism and its impact on warfare.

Facebook rejected the image on the basis that it contravened the site's rules on nudity. Aftenposten published the rejection notice and its editor posted a response in an open letter to Mark Zuckenberg condemning Facebook's abuse of editorial power.

Espen Egil Hansen complained that not only was Facebook abusing editorial power but that, in deleting posts responding to the original image removal, it was also shutting down criticism or discussion of the decision.

Hansen is wrong, but also he's missed the very real and potentially dangerous shift in power that has given Facebook the ability to shape the news going forward.

Firstly, ownership. Facebook has rules for its site and for what may be published on the site. The image of a young Kim Phuc, with her clothes burnt off in after a Napalm attack, clearly contravened those rules. Newspaper editors at the time would have been faced with those same rules and they were able to use their judgement and experience to decide that this was an appropriate time to break those rules.

On the other hand Aftenposten's posts and the image were probably picked up by an algorithm that identified a possible contravening image, was probably reviewed by a member of staff without any context (especially if they were younger and had no previous exposure to it) who confirmed the content and sent the take-down notice, before eventually deleting the image and reposts of the same.

It is Facebook's site and decisions on what can an can't be posted remain Facebook's. The court of public opinion prevailed in this instance, because of the fame of the image. However my guess is that Facebook users didn't care one way or another. The older users of the site know of the image and its context and didn't need to see the image in the post, the younger users are more interested in today's issues than in the horrors of the past, rightly or wrongly.

If Facebook had held out and refused to publish the picture I don't believe that anyone would have cared, especially once the media at large had moved onto its next sensation.

What about if the image was created here and now, today. Would it have even been published? Facebook would have rejected the image and there would have been no media backlash, no court of public opinion to change that decision.

And with other parts of the social media conversation abiding by similar rules on their own sites, failure to go viral through re-shares would have buried the image forever, in amongst the billions of others that compete for attention today.

How many other stories, how many other pictures equally as important, as telling as Ut's Vietnam war image, disappear into the ether without ever gaining the momentum, the reposts, the shares to raise the awareness of the stories that we should be concerned about? In that respect Facebook has come to define the stories that can and will form part of our history and that's a lot of power to concentrate on one group.

Newspapers around the globe need to reconsider how they respond this challenge, because they're too busy fighting for clicks to fight for what's important. And that might just be the biggest lesson to come from this whole incident.

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