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Facebook reverses decision to ban iconic Vietnam War photo

Kim Phuc (center) suffered burns from an aerial napalm bombing in 1972 during the Vietnam War that left her disfigured. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing.Nick Ut/AP/file

The image is an iconic one: a naked girl fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War. The picture from 1972, which won the Pulitzer Prize for photography, has since been used countless times to show the horror of war.

But for Facebook, the image was not a statement of war but one that violated its standards about nudity on the social network. So the company took down the photo, an action that quickly spurred a wave of criticism over how Facebook was censoring images.

In response, hours after the controversy broke out, Facebook reinstated the image across its site.

“An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our community standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography,” Facebook said in a statement Friday. “In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

The controversy broke out Friday in Europe when one of Norway’s largest newspapers asserted that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and the social network were harming press freedom by limiting what could be published on the social network. Facebook had earlier taken down the photo, which is known as the Napalm Girl, that a Norwegian author had put up on a post about the history of warfare.


In an open letter to Zuckerberg, Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Aftenposten, said that Facebook played a dominant role in how people around the world viewed information and that it should not set limits on what types of journalism could be seen online.

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“Facebook not only has become a media company, but Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor-in-chief in the world,” Hansen, whose newspaper has a print circulation of 200,000, said in an interview Friday before Facebook reversed its decision to censor the photo. He was not immediately available to comment after the social network’s announcement.


The criticism of Facebook’s perceived heavy hand toward the news media comes soon after the technology giant was accused of intentionally suppressing conservative news articles in the United States so that they did not appear in its Trending Topics listing.

Thanks to both its global reach and the dependence of major news organizations on its platform, Facebook has become an arbiter of what makes news. Constant changes to its algorithms can drastically affect publishers and what readers see online. Its growing dominance has also made it a target for criticism, and ham-handed attempts to police content on the social network have led to some prominent mistakes.

Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and CEO of Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, posed with Friday’s edition of the paper, which features an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.Eric Johansen/European Pressphoto Agency