Facebook continues to find it hard to avoid new media controversies, joining Apple and Google in making missteps
Tech companies say they don’t want to be seen as media companies, yet they are also content distributors, digital newsstands in many cases, and so when they censor content they are acting as editor, a role they appear poorly equipped to manage successfully
The owner of a printing press is not a media company, ask RR Donnelley. Except when it actually is, like Quebecor which was a printer and publisher (before selling its printing company to Quad/Graphics).
So, the issue of whether Facebook is a media company is not clear cut. I would say it most definitely is for two reasons: it sells advertising, and it edits the content that appears on its social network – as it did when it censored the famous picture by Nick Ut called “The Terror of War.”
Facebook is struggling with how to handle content coming from media companies. It routinely deletes content it finds, or others find, objectionable. But when it does so in the accounts of media companies there may be hell to pay.
The latest incident that has the media wondering about its relationship with Facebook occurred when Norwegian author Tom Egeland posted on Facebook what he thought were the seven photographs that changed the history of warfare. One of the photos was, of course, Ut’s iconic shot from the Vietnam War.
It was a stupid decision on the part of Facebook, made all the worse when the social network went on to suspend Egeland’s account, then deleting a post by Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg when she posted the image to her own Facebook page.
Facebook tried to walk it all back a bit, but their spokesperson obviously had been placed in a tough spot:
“While we recognise that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others,” Facebook told the UK media which had jumped on the story.
“We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.”
The Norweigan daily Aftenposten supported fellow countryman Egeland and posted on Facebook themselves, including the photo in question. Facebook demanded that the newspaper take down the photo which led to Espen Egil Hansen, Editor in Chief and CEO at Aftenposten, writing an open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“To be honest, I have no illusions that you will read this letter. The reason why I will still make this attempt, is that I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society,” Hansen wrote.
Hansen said that though Aftenposten is a powerful media brand in Norway using Facebook “is hard to avoid.” He called Facebook the world’s most powerful editor, but that its policies are clearly faulty,
“If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other,” Hansen said.
It is worth remembering that media companies have have these kinds of run-ins with major tech firms for a while now. It really began when Apple launched the App Store and began to delete apps in what felt like a random manner.
In late 2009, Apple banned an app by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Mark Fiore because it “ridiculed public figures.” Apple was widely condemned for its action and the company backtracked and the app was approved when resubmitted months later.
“Sure, mine might get approved, but what about someone who hasn’t won a Pulitzer and who is maybe making a better political app than mine?” Fiore told Brian Stelter, then with The New York Times (now at CNN). “Do you need some media frenzy to get an app approved that has political material?”
Apple censored has been so haphazard and mindless that there is now a Wikipedia page dedicated to it. The worst policy has involved pornography. While it proved impossible for Playboy to get an app approved that contained nude photography, Russian developers had no problems from Apple for many years, and even a few iffy apps remain in the App Store.
Apple does things quietly, failing to acknowledge to the media what it was doing and why its own developer guidelines were being ignored. Apple’s level of secrecy, and its press team’s insistence on only talking to a limited number of very compliant media properties makes understanding just what the rules are difficult.
At Google, the problem has been that it appears to generate warnings to media companies automatically, and without human monitoring. For instance, TNM and its sister website PoliMedia.press have received numerous warnings from Google concerning nudity – despite the fact that neither site has run any nude artwork (today’s posting of Aftenposten’s Facebook page may be the first occasion, and will likely lead to another communication from Google). On several occasions Google emailed TNM about nudity after TNM ran pictures of Playboy issue covers, none of which actually contained nudity. One assumes they were triggered simply by using the word “Playboy”. On one occasion PoliMedia was warned about a reproduction of the Tweet sent out by the Ted Cruz campaign of Melania Trump.
This might merely be a nuisance were it not for the fact that pulling an app, or pulling Google Adsense credentials has a huge impact on a media company’s revenue. It often is the difference between being in business, and being forced out.
“I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” Hansen wrote about his paper’s problems with Facebook. “But I am also writing – and I hope you will understand this – because I take a positive attitude to the possibilities that Facebook has opened up. I only hope that you will utilize the possibilities in a better way.”
For six years I’ve begged companies like Apple to bring in media professionals to help them with issues such as this, to have an industry liaison that media professionals could contact directly to work on these thorny issues. In some ways, the model to be used exists in the grocery business where retailers have category managers that CPGs can work with on many issues including shelf space and promotion. It is not like other industries don’t have the same problems, they just seem more willing to work with their partners to solve them.
As Shane Dingman, a technology reporter with the Globe and Mail, put it on Twitter Friday: “Facebook’s control over our content means we get 9/11 trutherisms but not 20th-century icons.”
Facebook has escaped regulatory scrutiny by saying it is merely a platform — a conduit for people to find information — and that it’s no more responsible for the contents of the material that is shared on the platform than a phone company is for the contents of a conversation. Yet media companies say Facebook should be treated as a publisher, making editorial decisions that can have an impact on civil society.
Solberg added: “I appreciate the work Facebook and other media do to stop content and pictures showing abuse and violence … But Facebook is wrong when they censor such images.”
Before being deleted by Facebook this morning, her post went on to say the website’s decision “helps to curb freedom of expression”, adding: “I say no to this form of censorship.”
Solberg said: “It is highly regrettable that Facebook has removed a post from my Facebook page. What they achieve by removing such images, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history. I wish today’s children will also have the opportunity to see and learn from historical mistakes and events. This is important.
“I hope Facebook uses this opportunity to review its editing policy, and assumes the responsibility a large company managing a broad communication platform should take.”
On the decision to delete the prime minister’s post, Hansen told the Guardian: “At least they don’t discriminate, we have to give them credit for that.”