An open letter splashed across the front page of a Norwegian newspaper on September 8 plunged Facebook's position on censorship into the global spotlight. Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, railed against Facebook's removal of the iconic Vietnam war photo of a petrified, Napalm-burnt Kim Phúc, and in doing so sparked a worldwide conversation about the role Facebook plays in news distribution.
"I just got mad, I just got really mad," Hansen told me over the phone. "I decided to address it then and there, and write the letter."
Hansen's letter was published in Aftenposten's print and online editions, and called for Mark Zuckerberg—"the world's most powerful editor"—to act with better judgement in how news is disseminated to Facebook users.
Facebook initially removed the photo when it was posted by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland. The site temporarily banned Egeland for posting the image, which it claimed had breached its nudity regulations. Aftenposten picked up on the story, and posted the photograph on its own Facebook page in a story about Facebook's decision to censor the image. Hansen then received an email from Facebook telling Aftenposten to remove the image.
News of Facebook's censorship spread quickly, and after Hansen published his letter to Zuckerberg, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg also posted the photo. Again, it was removed, but the backlash against Facebook had already swelled. Facebook bowed to pressure a few days later, and the image was restored.
But, for Hansen, Facebook can't get away with the level of media filtration it deals out any longer.
"For me, [the letter] didn't come out of nothing. It didn't come out of just this very picture. The problem has been growing for a long time," he said. "It's about Facebook's role. Being as large as they are now, being the most important distributor of the news in the world today, they never—or very rarely—participate in the debate about that side of Facebook. It's been a growing concern."
Aftenposten has more than 300,000 "likes" on its official Facebook page and, like many of its peers, needs Facebook to reach an online audience it otherwise couldn't.
"[Facebook] does edit every post; they do it another way than I do, but they do edit"
"We use it quite actively; it's an effective platform to introduce our journalism and get attention for it, and bring people over to our platform and into our subscription models," said Hansen. "It's doing a lot of good things for Aftenposten…I have to admit that."
In Hansen's opinion, however, the issue of Facebook's power is global.
"I would like to stress that my concern is much more for society at large; one player getting such a dominant position as a platform for information," he said. "[Facebook] does edit every post; they do it another way than I do, but they do edit. And I think the discussion about that is just not good enough. As a start, Facebook has to admit what they are doing."
Facebook has unprecedented power as an editor. With nearly 2 billion monthly active users, it drives a higher percentage of traffic to news sites than Google. But one of the main points of contention for Hansen is the filter bubbles created by the platform's algorithms—curated echo chambers that trap users in a world of news that only affirms their beliefs.
"I think that one of the core tasks of the independent press…is to expose people to different views," he said. "It's not the only role of the press, but it is one. What we see now is that the press is becoming weaker. I don't want to say that it's because of Facebook, which is not my point. Independent press all over the world has become weaker. Independent press are institutions that get democracy to work. I have a core belief that we need many editorial institutions in a democracy."
"I disagree when they want to frame themselves as a pure, neutral technology company, because they are not"
It's through Facebook that many of these editorial institutions reach readers, and this is where the social media platform can play the role of gatekeeper, trapping users in those bubbles that prevent them from reading "the other side" of stories.
"I have never seen Facebook reflecting on that, and that surprises me," said Hansen. "By far, [Facebook] is the most important carrier of news today, and it is editing at least in two ways. Every post you see on your feed is there for a reason; it's not neutral at all, it's an algorithm that decides."
Hansen isn't against using algorithms in the news dissemination process. "I of course use algorithms myself, and my ambitions are to use them on a much higher level than we do today," he told me. "But I disagree in how [Facebook] uses them. I disagree when they want to frame themselves as a pure, neutral technology company, because they are not. They are actually [making] editorial decisions in the same way as I do."
"If you [are a] very powerful media company…at some point you will have to come out to society and answer questions and discuss how to become better," he added. "The first move will have to be just to admit it."
Read More: You Need to Care About Facebook Censoring an Iconic Vietnam War Photo
Hansen said that this change has to start at the top, with Mark Zuckerberg. While he has received an apology from the higher echelons of Facebook, he said Zuckerberg has been too quiet on the matter.
"I think there are many more things they can do, like just have more people answering [to media questions]," he said. "If the press is discussing a case like this, for example, there is really no one there to answer. It's a ready-made PR message that comes out."
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg is scheduled to meet Norwegian PM Erna Solberg next week in New York City, but Hansen is not optimistic that the encounter will force any change.
"From a PR standpoint, they will meet," Hansen laughed. "They immediately decided together they will work on some social programme, I can't remember what it was, and I think that's what they will discuss."
When I asked for more information about the meeting, Facebook declined to comment further on the matter. "We don't have anything to add on this, but we'll be in touch if anything changes," the company said.
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