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Facebook’s censorship of a historic Vietnam War photo proves human editors trump robots.

Photoshop by Sukjong Hong

Sharing photographs, both iconic and mundane, is the engine of social media platforms like Facebook. So when Norwegian writer Tom Egeland shared “The Terror of War,” a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph by Nick Ut of children fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, he surely didn’t expect the controversy that followed. 

Facebook deleted his post for violating its policy on nudity, then suspended his account for 24 hours for criticizing its removal. Other outlets and journalism associations posted the photo in protest, but also found their photos removed. Even Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg got into the spirit, sharing the photo on her own Facebook page on Friday, where the app’s algorithms promptly whisked it away. 

On Thursday, Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg lambasting Facebook for requesting that the paper remove “or pixelize” the historic photo, then removing it less than 24 hours later without waiting for a response. Editor Espen Egil Hansen wrote that Zuckberg was abusing his position as the “world’s most powerful editor.” 

At stake was something much bigger than a single photo. What would Facebook do, he asked, when outlets published photos of contemporary wars that presented disturbing and unpleasant realities? Would Facebook censor these, too?  

Beyond the fact that the app’s algorithms fail to distinguish between historic photojournalism and child pornography, this controversy raises questions about the increasingly lopsided relationship between Facebook and the media, which has come to rely heavily on the platform to draw readers. As it becomes more apparent that Facebook’s curation and publishing standards are far from neutral or harmless, the platform’s mission to “make the world more open and connected” appears to be little more than hollow marketing lingo.