Social media giant Facebook is no stranger to controversy and its most recent bout arose after staff members decided to delete a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, which contained the famous photograph of a naked girl fleeing from a napalm attack in the Vietnam War. The iconic image was originally removed from the site because it was not considered appropriate with regards to Facebook’s Community Guidelines.
This sparked a furious front-page response from Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, who claimed that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had demonstrated an “abuse of power” in allowing the image to be censored in the first place.
The social media firm initially defended its position, citing that it is difficult to “create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others”. However, it has since issued an apology for deleting the original post and for censoring the image containing the child. Facebook has also reversed its decision to stop users sharing the image.
An abuse of power? A violation of rights? Call it what you will, the removal of the post was a complete blunder that should have been avoided.
I understand that Facebook’s policy is designed to stop people just spewing out whatever garbage they want. I mean, if someone posts hate crime material on the site, then of course it should be removed. In the same way, I don’t exactly want to be scrolling through my news feed to casually chance upon strong pornography, either. Undoubtedly, it is where Facebook draws the line on what it deems appropriate for its users that plays a central role in this debate.
But the point here is that neither of the aforementioned things serve any actual educational purpose. The picture of the Vietnamese girl, however, absolutely serves an educational purpose, and by censoring the image Facebook could be seen to have effectively condoned what it represents, which is the attacking of innocent civilians.
Now obviously, I am not saying that I would particularly like to roll out of bed on a morning and see images of children in war-torn countries plastered all over social media but my point is that such material should never be censored or altered to make it more ‘user-friendly’.
It is perhaps even the case that Facebook has a moral obligation not to block such posts, so that they might serve as a timely reminder of just how destructive wars have been in the recent past. This is especially prudent given the fact that we are still learning about some of the horrific events that took place during the war.
With a death toll of over a million, the Vietnam War was a particularly devastating conflict for civilians as well as soldiers. But just as the US military didn’t ‘censor’ their attacks on entire communities, the results of them should not be censored on social media, either.
Graphic photographs of warzones are not uncommon to Facebook; around the same time the photo of the girl was uploaded, a harrowing picture of a wounded Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance was also being circulated. The boy, who had been injured in an airstrike, looked visibly distraught and disillusioned. The image caused outcry and condemnation of Western presence in Syria, but for many, this came as a wake-up call.
This is perhaps the more pressing issue that needs to be raised here. It is alarming how easy it is for billions around the world to simply shut out the sufferings of others with the mere swipe of a thumb. Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it. On Facebook, if you don’t want to look at something then you can just scroll past it. If you flick on the news after a crappy day at work then the last thing you want is to be further depressed by yet another attack or shooting. So, you switch it off.
It is a very saddening reality that in an age of such technological prowess, we continue to kid ourselves into thinking that the horrendous things that have happened around the world are somehow unimportant. Needless to say, however, that the last thing that is required is for a global platform such as Facebook to start altering historical evidence as well.
So yes, Facebook was wrong to censor the image of the Vietnamese girl, and it did, in my opinion, demonstrate a violation of publication rights. Looking at the bigger picture, however, we are the ones doing the censoring because I can almost guarantee that even if the picture hadn’t been censored, many people would have chosen not to even glance at it anyway.
Whether it is through the medium of social media or not, until we start to actually learn the lessons of the past for ourselves we cannot know for sure that they won’t be repeated and that’s the real violation.