The world’s most powerful editor is censoring your news

By Oliver Smith 9 September 2016

If Facebook is the future of news, that raises some troubling questions.

UPDATE 2016-09-10 – On Friday Facebook also removed the posts of Norway’s PM Erna Solberg, as well as many of her cabinet colleagues who had put The Terror of War on their own Facebook profiles, before finally backtracking on its decision saying: “In this case, we recognise the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

Where do you get your news from?

The BBC? Newspapers? The Memo?

For over half of Brits who are online, Facebook is now their main sources of news.

But Facebook is censoring what we’re seeing and reading, something made painfully obvious this week.

Censoring the truth

Tom Egeland, a journalist for Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten, this week published  “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare” on Facebook.

One of these was The Terror of War, the Pulitzer prize-winning historical photograph that shows children fleeing from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war.

Facebook quickly removed the photos quoting their stance against nudity, and when Egeland published criticism of the move from Kim Phuc (the nine-year old girl from the photograph) on Facebook, he was suspended from the social network.

Aftenposten’s editor Espen Egil Hansen this morning published a front-page letter criticising Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for allowing decisions like this to be made, he wrote:

“I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.”

Murky waters

Facebook is quickly becoming the world’s No.1 source of news, and that position comes with a weight of responsibility.

Arcane rules, some clearly designed to block pornography, have a worrying impact when applied to news.

Violent, graphic, and disturbing pictures that show what is really happening in the world should not be censored by default.

Yes, journalists make decisions to pixelate sensitive images, but erasing history is a step too far.

As Aftenposten’s editor says: “Envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas. Would you once again intercept the documentation of cruelties, just because a tiny minority might possibly be offended by images of naked children?”

The grey area

Facebook’s role in the news agenda is under increasing pressure. Earlier this year it was reported that Facebook’s trending news section was suppressing conservative news stories.

Just weeks ago Facebook also fired the team who used to curate these stories, handing over control to an algorithm that has struggled to distinguish between real and satirical news stories.

Meanwhile, when Facebook Live was used to stream the shooting of a black man by a US police officer, Facebook initially removed the video before clarifying that this was a mistake and that future videos like this will be marked as graphic but can remain on Facebook.

The future of news

Whether it’s graphic, disturbing or violent, journalists and publications need to be able to report what’s happening in the world, and they need to be able to do this on Facebook.

In the case of Tom Egeland, I hope this was simply a mistake which will be quickly reversed.

But we need more clarity over Facebook’s editorial policy, over what will and what will not be allowed.

If Mark Zuckerberg wants to be the world’s most powerful editor, then we have a right to know what he is editing out.