The lacerating criticism of Facebook by a Norwegian editor over its censorship of one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war sparked a rare moment of global solidarity among outraged writers, journalists, media experts and free speech campaigners last week.
Espen Egil Hansen used the front page of the daily newspaper Aftenposten to publish an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and Chief Executive, accusing his company of an abuse of power for removing the Pulitzer prize-winning photograph showing children fleeing a napalm attack.
Within a day Facebook backed down, reinstated the photo and promised to discuss the matter with publishers.
On the face of it this was an isolated storm over the use of just one picture, but it touched a raw nerve in journalism worldwide. It highlights the increasing controversy over the imperial power of internet companies and the threat they pose to the future of the news industry.
The row underscores growing concern over how Internet giants like Google and Facebook have grown rich by using technology to impoverish traditional publishing and news media. Critics say they have become powerful by exploiting news through use of stealth technology, but they have little if any understanding or regard for the public purpose of journalism.
So what can we learn from the Aftenposten saga? Well, there are many lessons and issues for anyone troubled about the future of digital democracy, but here are four that the EJN has drawn from the controversy:
1. Journalism and Editing is for People Not Robots
The use of algorithms to monitor and edit material on social networks is no substitute for employing people to edit and prepare news for publication. Earlier this year The Guardian reported how Facebook fired a team of editors in charge of their trending topics section and replaced them with algorithms that quickly demonstrated the difficulty of automating news editorial judgement by publishing a fake news story.
The row over the Vietnam war photo (and we don’t know if it was removed by some hapless junior techie or some algorithmic gizmo) reveals how sentient human beings are still needed to analyse, to apply context and to make nuanced judgements over what gets published.
In journalism not all nudity is indecent; not all images of violence are damaging; and not all hateful words unacceptable. It all depends upon the context in which the material is used. Editorial decisions need to be made by people who understand notions of public interest and who have an understanding of the framework of values in which journalism works.
This framework of core ethics – accuracy, impartiality, humanity, transparency and accountability – contributes to the fine tuning of editorial choice. Machines can do much, but they can’t be encoded with the ethical expertise of journalists.
2. Facebook is a Publisher and Must be Accountable
Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg argues his social network is “a tech company” and “a platform” but not a publisher. However, many media experts strongly disagree.
They say he has become the “world’s most powerful editor”, and with good reason. He leads a business worth around $325bn and is the world’s sixth largest company. It is a Goliath in the world of news in social media. Studies show that these days more than 50 per cent of people get their news from social media and in the United States it is more than 60 per cent according to the Pew Research Center.
The rise of Facebook as a dominant player in news worries many in journalism. They fear that the platform is too powerful and can set the news agenda, or just as damaging, it can censor news in ways that threaten the freedom of the press.
To allay these fears the company would do well to step away from denial of its role and face up to its responsibility as a news provider. It needs to recognise and apply the principles and core standards of journalism and free expression that have guided the work of journalists, editors and publishers around the world for generations.
It can best do that, say media experts, by giving editors of news media a voice in making the decisions about how they use the platform and by employing its own team of editors to work with professional media to resolve disputes when they arise.
3. Facebook Must Be More Transparent
The lack of transparency in the way the Facebook and other social networks and Internet companies work makes it hard for them to be held accountable. The European Union has spent years investigating the smoke-and-mirror financial and tax affairs of Google and Apple, for instance. Recently Brussels ordered Apple to pay more than 13 billion Euro in back taxes. And publishers, mainly in Europe, have challenged Google over its exploitation of their news streams.
But the issues at stake here go beyond cash concerns. The controversy launched by Aftenposten reveals how little the public knows about Facebook and how the company works. It may be the world’s major provider of news and information, but it is secretive about how its ’s algorithms work and what role employees play in the editing process. Facebook has the power to promote or kill stories, but journalists and the public at large don’t know how or why decisions are taken.
Only the leaking of documents by former employees has cast some light on the inside workings of the company – as highlighted by the EJN earlier this year. This lack of transparency raises a question over who is held accountable for the company’s treatment of news. The only thing that is certain is that Facebook is creating, above all, a platform that will attract advertisers. It appears to have no interest in building a reputation in the news business.
It’s a point also made by Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg – herself censored by Facebook for circulating the napalm photo.
Writing in The Guardian on Friday she said the company’s action was not transparent and responsible behaviour. Facebook had ended up “altering history, and altering the truth.” And she warned of the threat to democracy and free flow of information.
“Already, Facebook and other media outlets’ algorithms narrow the range of content one sees based on past preferences and interests. This limits the kind of stories one sees,” she warned. “We run the risk of creating parallel societies in which some people are not aware of the real issues facing the world, and this is only exacerbated by such editorial oversight. As we move towards a more automated world, this is not a responsibility that should be surrendered to machines only.”
4. Media Solidarity Can Halt the Abuse of Power
Media pressure on Facebook works. The EJN received a message from the Norwegian Editors’ Association about the open letter on the front page of Aftenposten. We circulated it among our supporters. Dozens of other media and media support groups did the same. Within hours a global community of writers, publishers and leading journalists were hammering home a unified message – this was an egregious abuse of power; Facebook had to think again.
Facebook got the message, just as it did three years ago when scores of women’s rights groups backed by major advertisers protested over its refusal to strengthen internal guidelines to ban online abuse of women.
The company is sensitive to pressure, even as it continues to dodge taking responsibility. The napalm photo, which is still making waves 44 years after it was first published, has now become an iconic symbol in a new fight – for free expression in the face of internet abuse.
This case illustrates how journalists and news media can make a difference when they join forces. In this case major news media around the world took up the cause; publicising the Norwegian protest, reproducing the napalm picture and providing supporting analysis to give the story context.
This simple and successful act of solidarity provides perhaps the most valuable lesson of all; that if we want to secure the future of journalism in a world where the power to shape the news agenda has moved out of the newsroom we need to stand and fight together.