Media regulator says Facebook picture bans clumsy

THE Australian Press Council has joined the chorus of condemnation over Facebook's decision to censor the Vietnam War's iconic 'Napalm Girl' photograph because of its nudity.

Professor David Weisbrot, chair of the press council, said Facebook's treatment of the photograph - widely published since 1972 and often referred to as 'the photo that helped end the Vietnam War' - shined a spotlight on the growing power of Facebook to shape the world's news agenda without an adequate and clearly stated editorial policy.

"Far too many people have fought for free speech and press freedom to have it threatened because a major news distribution platform like Facebook adopts unthinking, one-size-fits-all standards that censor images and information the world needs to see,'' Prof Weisbrot said.

"As more and more people get their news primarily, or even solely, based on what is 'trending' on Facebook and other social media platforms, the company's public interest responsibilities and accountability must increase accordingly.

"Facebook is no longer simply a passive aggregator and disseminator of news and other information.

"It is unacceptable for Facebook to rely on vague and inconsistently applied rules and a complex computer algorithm to shape the content featured and distributed by what is, in effect, a global news service.

"Although Facebook has since reversed its decision and the photograph of the naked little girl running away in terror from a napalm attack on her Vietnamese village is now available to Facebook users, important issues of principle and practice remain to be debated."

The Australian Press Council is engaged in a project on reporting involving children, which is considering better guidelines and education for editors and journalists regarding interviewing children (especially without a parent, teacher or other adult guardian present), accessing photos of children from social media, and publishing information or photos of children in distress.

"However, in all of my public discussion of these issues, I have expressly used the iconic photos of Ayan Kurti (the Syrian boy on the beach) and Kim Phúoc (the Vietnamese 'napalm girl') as examples of very confronting photos of children that we would never seek to have suppressed by editors.

"There was another skirmish earlier this year in Australia when Facebook censored photos from a New Matilda report on Aboriginal elder women in traditional dress and body paint, preparing for a significant cultural ceremony.

"We have also seen similar controversies with Facebook removing images of women bravely showing post-operative breast cancer scars.

"With great power comes great responsibility. Facebook is now a leading global publisher in all but name.

"The Australian Press Council calls on senior management at Facebook to review urgently the way it aggregates and disseminates the world's news and to make public the editorial policy, if there is one, which guides this work."

"Facebook must also address the clumsy and ineffective way in which its moderators and computer algorithms make crucial editorial decisions on behalf of Facebook's users.

"Any attempt to impose universal, but lowest common denominator, rules that ignore context and cultural differences or operate to censor newsworthy images and information, must be avoided.

"I congratulate Espen Egil Hansen, the Editor-in-Chief of the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, for his open letter last week to Facebook 's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, which brought these issues into the world spotlight."

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